Only on a Deerhoof album is the juxtaposition of cutesy twee pop with pulverizing noise rock so utterly infectious. It’s a contradiction perhaps best encapsulated by PopMatters writer Matt Gonzales’s 2006 claim that “Deerhoof is the rare avant-garde schizo-rock band that you don’t have to pretend to like.” At times, though, polarizing is the most fitting adjective. I saw the San Francisco-based quartet open for the Flaming Lips in 2006 and instantly fell in love — to the point that I ordered an $80 “gift box” that painstakingly compiled their entire Kill Rock Stars discography, plus a Runners Four t-shirt (the pinnacle of awkward indie fashion). By contrast, my brother reacted with puzzlement towards what he perceived as grating novelty appeal, mocking one song in particular (“Panda Panda Panda”) ad nauseam.
I wouldn’t hesitate to call Deerhoof the best live act on tour right now, a frenetic powerhouse that peaks on the edge of collapse. Their furious energy is seldom equaled, hyperkinetic noise blasts coupled with snippets of sing-song-y tunefulness. Reveille defined this model in 33 minutes of fractured noise pop. Expansion was the way to go after that — by 2005’s The Runners Four, the songs were longer, the albums more coherent, the lyrics slightly more defined than “Beep beep / Beep beep”. (Well, not always.) Remarkably, there has not been a dip in quality: simply put, Deerhoof is as strangely consistent as they are consistently strange.
Critical reaction to the past three records has focused on the group’s increasing move towards pop accessibility. It’s an exaggeration. Sure, they’ve cleaned up the production values a bit since The Man, the King, the Girl, but there’s no “Paper Planes” on the horizon for Satomi Matsuzaki and Co. Rather, I’ve noticed a different pattern: Unabashed indulgence of their art-rock sensibilities on one album, back-to-basics guitar rock on the next; lather, rinse, repeat. Check it out. Apple O fit pretty cleanly into the latter camp, but they followed it up with Milk Man, a dazzling concept album inspired by the Ken Kagami cover art. The Stravinsky-esque orchestral elements and all-pervading prog-rock fetish produced an album that truly stands alone in their discography — hell, there’s even a ballet based on it. The Runners Four plays like the natural follow up to Apple O, while 2007’s Friend Opportunity runs the gamut from space funk (“Believe E.S.P.”) to orchestral pop (“Whither the Invisible Birds?”), chaotic prog (“The Perfect Me”) to epic guitar drone (“Look Away”). And so Offend Maggie continues the pattern by focusing on a raw noise rock template, a natural reaction to Ed Rodriguez’s addition as a second guitarist. More succinctly, Friend Opportunity was big on genre exploration; Offend Maggie is big on thunderous, sharp-as-a-knife guitar-oriented rock music.
Opener “The Tears and Music of Love” is classic Deerhoof. Greg Saunier’s propulsive beat roars from the speakers with the most primitive punch this side of a Steve Albini recording, a perfect backbone for Matsuzaki’s compulsively hummable vocal melody, doubled by the lead guitar. (This is the obligatory mention of Saunier’s genius drumming, by the way. He plays like a man possessed — the result sounds like the Lips’ Steven Drozd on speed.) Like “Twin Killers”, it’s a standard recipe for a Deerhoof rocker rendered completely invigorating. If there were a Grammy for most face-melting opening track, then the ‘Hoof has an acceptance speech to write.
It gets better from there. The most intense tracks are funneled through the group’s most visceral production aesthetics in years, and it’s electrifying to the degree that it’s hard to sit still while listening. There’s “Snoopy Waves”, a short blast of blistering guitar interplay atop a math-rock-like funk groove that would make Fugazi jealous. “My Purple Past” is equally frantic — and more complete — highlighted by Saunier’s virtuosic fills and John Dieterich’s pummeling chords. Matsuzaki fills the lyrics with her typically dreamlike, semi-coherent storytelling through imagery: “Cowboy in a pool / Leaping in the boots / Turn around around”. “Fresh Born”, the first single, is a mini-masterpiece as well. The group creatively released the sheet music and posted fan interpretations on their site — an entertaining gimmick, though nothing could match this recording. After an innocent intro, the song reaches a freakish double guitar explosion, alternating between verses of ’70s rock swagger and a chorus unrivaled in its gleeful staccato weirdness: “Downy hairy tip toeing moony / Tiny hoofies bend oh bend bonny / Puffy butty stand up now waggy”.
Matsuzaki intersperses Japanese and English freely — often mid-sentence — on some of the album’s less immediate tracks, furthering the mysterious vagueness of her lyrics. There’s “Chandelier Searchlight”, in which the singer welcomes the listener “to the underworld” atop an oompa rhythm and captivating melody; “Buck and Judy”, an ode to the title characters’ “tasty fruit”, propelled by inharmonic piano arpeggios and enveloping guitar noise; and “Eaguru Guru”, with ominous, anti-nationalistic imagery (“Eagle sings for freedom / La la la la la / What is it waiting at the other end of the tunnel?”) and complex, overlapping guitar layers that would make Radiohead proud.
“Family of Others” is Greg Saunier’s contribution, directly reminiscent of “Odyssey” on Runners Four, but fuzzier and less direct, both musically (the off-kilter harmonies) and lyrically (“Brother, a mother to another / A self-effacing worldly lover / Wild and wandering”). “Don’t Get Born” is the only comparably fey moment, an almost bluesy (has that word ever appeared in a Deerhoof review before?) ditty that glides right into “My Purple Past”. “Basket Ball Get Your Groove Back” directly references past Deerhoof tracks as well (namely “Kidz Are So Small” and “Dog on the Sidewalk”) in that all three openly embrace the band’s novelty value. The latter two are both about dogs, while “Basket Ball” takes on the role of a rather concise basketball announcer (best line: “Pivot pivot pivot pivot escape / Dribble / Bunny jump bunny jump”).
“Get your hooves out of control”, mutters Matsuzaki on “Jagged Fruit”, and it’s the best summary you’ll find. Whether intentional or not, this is the best album representation of Deerhoof’s live restlessness and sonic punch since Apple O, absolutely brimming with those off-kilter melodic ideas that should not work but do. And it sounds live, too, “all fingers and arms and throats and muscles, physical, at times beautiful, at times brutal,” as the press release notes. It’s loud, it’s rich, downright danceable, but could it be their first career-defining album? Deerhoof is too spontaneous for that, too intuitive. Don’t think, just feel.