MOST Blonde Redhead fans assume that the worst time in singer-guitarist Kazu Makino's life was after the accident. In 2002, she was thrown from a horse, which then trampled her jaw, crushing facial bones that needed massive reconstructive surgery. Makino's mouth was wired shut, and she convalesced for months.
But it wasn't the pain, the physical therapy or the temporary disfigurement that bothered Makino the most. It was the simple fact that her body wouldn't let her play music.
"I wasn't even sad or suffering. I was just struggling to write good songs," Makino said. "I could barely move, but we even tried to not cancel our shows when I had my mouth wired. I asked Amedeo [Pace, the band's other singer] if he could sing my songs, or if we could play them as instrumentals. My only thought was 'How can we play?' "
It's hard to believe that the striking frontwoman of one of the most revered and inventive independent rock bands of the last decade wouldn't have been more upset after her face was shattered. But two years later, she followed through on her goal. Makino and her bandmates, twin brothers Amedeo and Simone Pace, released their best album to date, a dizzy and haunting collection of arty noise-pop appropriately titled "Misery Is a Butterfly" on longtime avant-rock staple 4AD Records.
This year they followed up with an even more optimistic album, the sleek, gauzy and Alan Moulder-assisted "23." There's a hint of My Bloody Valentine's ecstatic guitar rush, but it's tempered with gentle ambient programming and Simone's crafty drumming.
Blonde Redhead's knack for finding structural beauty in dissonant noises has left them in an odd place in their career. It's hard to imagine Makino's wraithlike voice ever gracing a sleeper hit single. Live, the band barely speaks or even acknowledges the crowd, with Makino preferring to thrash and flail behind her drape of black hair, evoking another Japanese woman in the experimental music vanguard, Yoko Ono.
Yet everything about the band -- New York art-rock pedigree, a riveting cosmopolitan look, its singular sense of texture and melodicism -- puts it squarely in the genealogy of pop revolutionaries like the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth (whose drummer, Steve Shelley, produced Redhead's first album).
"23" is their most accessible and song-inclined record yet, and will keep them at the forefront of left-field guitar rock. But many longtime fans have cried foul over its lack of their trademark rough edges. The album raises two questions: Why is Blonde Redhead so popular? And yet what about the band keeps it from being even big- ger?
"At times I feel like we could have done better or deserve more," Makino said. "I don't know if I blame myself, or if I even care to make it. When we play a festival with a huge band like Muse, it seems they always knew what they wanted and went for it. I have to compare us to them and say, 'Wow, what if I had such awareness, what would have happened?' I just hope we can be better at what we do; I don't wish we were like Muse."
A conversation with Makino leaves the definite impression that being better at being Blonde Redhead really is the most important thing in her life. She isn't quite self-deprecating about her band, but acknowledges that it isn't where she wants it to be yet. Each Blonde Redhead record is different: the jagged, cyclical guitar pings of "In an Expression of the Inexpressible" are worlds apart from "Misery's" nervous atmospherics.
But Makino isn't sure the band has hit the mark on any of them.
"I like the idea of being the real thing," Makino said. " '23' might be that, but I don't know yet. I want to know the secret of making an amazing record. I can really improve on the gift I have."
If "Misery" evoked the claustrophobia of Makino's physical tragedy (she claims the album isn't about that, but songs like "Equus" certainly hint at it), "23" finds Blonde Redhead honing their sense of motion and immersion. It's an album obliquely but evocatively about moving forward. Makino may not be satisfied with what her band has accomplished, but she has learned to savor small victories along the way.
"When I got the wires out I thought I could just bite into an apple," she said. "But I lost the muscles in my mouth, so that even though I didn't have the wires, I still felt like it. When I did get to eat one, I think I cried."