There are several reasons why Deerhunter are one of the most exciting young bands to emerge from this decade, but it seems that, between talk of genre-discarding experiments and Bradford Cox’s intensely compelling persona, many people seem to forget the most simple, obvious one: Cox and company know how to write a damn good tune. And if the band’s often-elusive, straight-ahead pop sensibilities were obscured in the haze of Microcastle‘s grand fragility, they’re fully felt on Rainwater Cassette Exchange—five compact songs that don’t seem to care much what their neighbors are up to, each self-sustaining, each undemanding, each perfectly enjoyable.
It’s clear why none of these tracks found a home on Microcastle, or even its more schizophrenic companion album, Weird Era Cont. While in the past Cox has talked about how accidental and chaotic much of the creative process behind Deerhunter’s albums are, it’s obvious that they’re intended to be listened to as just that—albums. On all of the band’s Kranky releases (I’ll just respect Cox’s wishes and pretend Turn It Up Faggot doesn’t exist), the songs interact with each other in ways that are far from accidental, passages of soothing ambience acting as a tonic to Cryptograms‘s most unsettlingly aggressive moments, Microcastle‘s mid-album triad of “Calvary Scars”, “Green Jacket”, and “Activa” being fragments of such a fragile disposition that they feel as if they’re clinging to each other for support.
Even so, Rainwater Cassette Exchange is to Microcastle as the Flourescent Gray EP was to Cryptograms; while none of these songs would fit into the deliberate architecture of its parent album without screwing things up a bit, Microcastle‘s chilly autumn breeze envelops each of the songs here to the extent that you’ll look out your window and wonder why the leaves on that tree look so healthy and green. But where Microcastle often got its point across through gently drifting vapor, even the slightest song on Rainwater Cassette Exchange—the vaguely Indian “Game of Diamonds”—is a substantial, tangible thing that doesn’t feel at all in danger of being blown away by a strong gust of wind. Most of the songs on this EP, particularly “Disappearing Ink”‘s relentless garage rock pulse, feel like they’ve been spawned by Microcastle‘s most cathartic moment, the remarkable “Nothing Ever Happened”. In other words, no sparse piano interludes here. These songs know exactly where they want to go, and even in the case of the sound collage that caps things off at the end of “Circulation”, they seem hell bent on getting there quickly.
Of course, even though most of these songs could hold their own as rousing noise rock anthems if Deerhunter were to dispense with the dreamy shoegaze fuzz and turn up the guitar crunch (which they absolutely shouldn’t), we never get into anything overtly aggressive here. There’s aggression, sure, but as with most of Deerhunter’s material, it’s more in line with the unsettling negative emotions that are always pricking the edges of our minds than anything like a fist to the face, and the lines between melancholy and placidity are blurred by the ever-present haze. Cox’s ghostly echo lays at the center of it all, and it revels in its ambiguity, soothing and unsettling at the same time, gentle naivety and harsh reality blending into one another: “Do you believe in love at first sight? / Oh yes my son I did the first time / Oh yes my son I did before I died / And now it does me no good / Here on the other side”. His lyric is death-obsessed and romantic without ever straying into affected gothic territory, and even when he’s all but obscured by the rest of the band’s formidable assault, he’s the element that gives Deerhunter their skewed, inimitable shape.
The remarkable thing is that, even on an EP of accessible pop songs, Deerhunter effortlessly retain that shape. Sure, there’s nothing formally groundbreaking on Rainwater Cassette Exchange, and Deerhunter’s identity has solidified to the point that we’re no longer surprised that they’re capable of peeling away the ambient fuzz and writing a concise slice of pop. But hey, a damn good tune is still a damn good tune. And in this case, we’ve got five.