You might have trouble accepting this idea if you’re a long-time fan: Deerhoof is a pop band. I know you used to love them because they were spazzy and noisy and matched up cutesy little-girl vocals with experimental art-rock, and what you keyed in on was that “experimental” part. So when I tell you that the new album almost lasts an hour and contains 20 songs, you’ll have to bear with me a minute.
On The Runners Four, Deerhoof perform pop, but they don’t make music for the radio. In condensing their music down to three-minute ditties, the band hasn’t sacrificed the joy of exploration. Even more than in the past, the music here reaches outward by starting with conceptual ideas that are melodically and rhythmically recognizable (I wanted to sound smart by not saying “accessible”) and pushing against the structures of the pop form.
One boring way to approach the album would be to make a formal analysis in order to reveal the various genres synthesized and perverted throughout this album. There are nods to indie and the Sonic Youth influences the band’s always had, but there are nods to more mainstream rock, too, as on “Vivid Cheek Love Song” when the group rotates between a major chord and its suspended fourth, a la “Pinball Wizard” (the song also echos some of the other musical motifs of Tommy. “Twin Killers” alternates between a New Wave groove and a post-punk hook. You can also keep your ears ready for the hippie synths that show up sporadically. Deerhoof raids the radio to make non-radio-ready music.
Another way to approach the album, which is far more fun, is to simply put it into the most important genre of them all: music currently playing on your stereo. In that genre, you don’t think, you just rock, and that’s really what Deerhoof does best. Skip the complex analysis (which the album deserves) and let the guitars crunch and the vocals twitter and get yourself twitterpated in your tryst with the twisting sounds of classic rock done with tendencies toward anti-canon twists.
Every “Wrong Time Capsule” best-of-yesterday’s-hits moment meets with an equally not-ready-for-primetime hook, all rendered in a sparse aesthetic… or with reverb and layers. This tension matches well with the juxtaposition of Satomi Matsuzaki’s tweener vocals and the group’s abrasive moments. The technical side of all this sound stays mentally intriguing through repeat listens, but the aural side just pleases. Even the less-traditional moments, like “Midnight Bicycle Mystery” eventually wind up with a smashing guitar part or adamantly sweet vocal. Each song does its own thing, and in a way that prevents from realizing for a listen or two how nicely the album coheres.
The album does have a few miscues. A few times, most notably on “Odyssey”, Deerhoof leans a little too far to the twee side. It’s a beautiful tension that makes this album work, and indulging in the wispy side of the music renders it too simple to maintain interest. These moments come seldom and scattered, though, and without fail find redemption in the inevitable return of the squelch.
But it’s neither the difficulty nor the softness that makes The Runners Four. And, ultimately, it isn’t the continual playing of the two sides against each other. Rather, the band’s growing gifts as songwriters put this album above so many other current releases. Deerhoof doesn’t sacrifice form, but they also seem unaware of the forms they toy with. Music comes from a game in which the rules are continually made up, and Deerhoof manages to create winners because they convince us they’ve escaped the game entirely, when in fact they point to its limits each time they take a turn.