When a much-beloved band comes out with an album of re-releases and B-sides from the time before they were world-famous, it is wise to approach it with caution.
Like a magical glowing orb that inexplicably lands in your backyard from the heavens, it may or may not be good to spend a lot of time with it, as it might re-shape your understanding of what you thought you knew.
Therefore, in the case of the new 4-disc release of re-releases, Masculin Féminin, by the weird/beautiful rock deities Blonde Redhead, it’s necessary to look at the work through different lenses to understand its place in both Blonde Redhead’s canon and the greater world of notable music.
At the core of this conversation is the question of what Blonde Redhead is to their fans, because in their roles as both studio artists and performers, they represent multiple outlooks. To illustrate the juxtapositions of their stage vs. studio oeuvre, I present this narrative from the early ‘00s when I did security for them:
The primary job of front-stage security is to lift people out of the crowd when they get squished into the barricade that separates them from the band. Blonde Redhead is raucous live, but their studio albums, especially the later ones, convey a different, more mature energy. I can see this dichotomy in the front-row couple directly in front of where I’m stationed.
The woman is lithe with long, dark hair and the disposition of a librarian working on her PhD in the works of Emily Dickinson. Her beau is a beer-swigging, head-banging, punk-rock type, whom she met over their mutual affection for Blonde Redhead – as she said to me before the first song, he’s been following the band since ’93, but this is her first show.
By the fifth song, a rift begins to show between the two. While the dude jumps and spills his beer all over, fist pumping and all, the lady hunches her shoulders and rubs her temples, staring as straight ahead as she can against the lunging thrusts of her possessed boyfriend. By the end of song seven, she and a handful of other men and women are ready to be lifted out, while the rest are going nuts.
Masculin Féminin provides a useful bridge between the band’s work at [name a storied recording booth here] and the comfortable outtakes, fiascos, and early attempts from their days under the Smells Like Records label.
Though it isn’t a collection of their most polished, “best of” works, every song does something interesting, and what’s more important, they go together well. There’s no feeling of some greedy record exec trying to cash-in; the listener gets the impression that the band is providing an honest explanation of how they became what they are. Either end of the live/studio fan spectrum can appreciate what this album is, and what it means to the group.
Masculin Féminin is a missing link we never knew wasn’t there, and it gives the fans a candid piece of the early house-show energy that brought the band together, and the later recording-contract affirmation that fused the parts into the whole it is today.