Deerhoof have long been the recipients of glowing, sometimes bemused epithets — foot-stomping, manic, spazzy, fractured, scary — yet what often gets lost beneath all their dizzying feats of violent kitsch is just how important recording is to the overall feel of their records. With each new release, the band have almost always eschewed high-profile producers and studios in favor of taping their craziness themselves, and with each new release, they’ve chopped-and-changed their taping methods so as to endow said craziness with a different aura and personality. For 2014’s La Isla Bonita they ditched the Oakland rehearsal space of The Runners Four and Deerhoof vs. Evil for guitarist Ed Rodriguez’s basement, and now, for their 13th album, they’ve swapped that same airless cellar for an abandoned office in New Mexico. The product of this new shift to a deserted corner of the aptly named Land of Enchantment is The Magic, which after the slight disappointment of the more polished and streamlined La Isla Bonita emerges as something of a blustering return to the band’s chaotic lo-fi roots.
Of course, Deerhoof had never really left these roots, not least because they continued recording their own albums in found spaces even after becoming one of the biggest going concerns in indiedom. Still, their increasingmastery of four-track recorders and second-hand compressors meant that each new album sounded a little more accomplished and cosmetically refined than the last. Not so for The Magic, which despite the finesse of its songwriting benefits from a distinctive warmth and fuzziness, a palpable lo-fi crackle that almost acts as an additional instrument, imbuing the snappy guitars, perky bass and restless drums with greater immediacy, intimacy and intensity than they would’ve had otherwise. With this “crackle”, the band no doubt lose a certain measure of aural clarity and crispness, yet they end up gaining emotional clarity, its sonic ‘redness’ and distortion ultimately acting as intensifiers of their meticulous chops.
It would be all-too easy at this point to claim that this return to low fidelity is a pretty naked attempt by Deerhoof to recover from the relative misstep of La Isla Bonita, to reclaim something of their early ingenuity and inspiration by merely signifying it via the deliberate use of relaxed production values. Given that drummer Greg Saunier described the album as partly an attempt to recreate “what we liked when we were kids — when music was magic”, their may be a tiny slither of truth to such a claim. However, one listen to pounding opener, “The Devil and His Anarchic Surrealist Retinue”, quickly reveals that their ability to write effervescent anti-rock is as strong as ever. Not only that, but the high-pitched, emotive guitar hook of the song’s ascendant chorus shows them taking this anti-rock further, evolving and articulating it into new affective territory. It rises quickly from one note to the next, searching wistfully yet determinedly for some hidden peak or plateau, only to continue restlessly onwards in much the same way that Deerhoof have continued restlessly for more than 20 years from one skewed styling of rock to the next.
And this is one of the most striking aspects of The Magic: that it’s perhaps the most varied record the band have delivered since Friend Opportunity or The Runners Four. If nothing else, songs like the bulldozing “That Ain’t Life No to Me” and the new-wavy synth-escapism of “Criminals of the Dream” contrast strongly, suggesting once again that the band’s wider, non-musical appeal lies precisely in the example it sets in refusing to be pinned to any one particular label or identity. Indeed, in “That Ain’t No Life to Me”, Dietrich seemingly underlines their unwillingness to stay in one place for long when he snorts, “Open up, nothin’ right here / I need to escape the state I’m in / I’ve seen how the other half lives / And that ain’t no life for me.”
This diversity isn’t all that surprising for an album which, calling itself The Magic, sets itself the task of rediscovering again and again that ‘magical’ sense of newness that comes with youth. Yet aside from the variety exhibited when the jazzy futurism of “Model Behavior” gives way to the anthemic grandstanding of “Learning to Apologize Effectively”, it’s surprising just how vintage some of the music on the album sounds (although not that surprising when you consider that some of the album’s entries were original recorded for HBO’s Vinyl). This is, once again, a result more of the band’s recording methods than of their playing style(s), with tracks like the mid-tempo “Acceptance Speech” giving off just enough hiss to create the impression that you’re listening to the song off an old mixtape your best friend cut for you when you were still in high school.
Nonetheless, even if the LP’s retro leanings are mainly an artifact of its low-budget production, there’s still very much an ’80s vibe to the relaxed chords and chugging accompaniment of “Acceptance Speech”, just as there’s the same vibe to the electro-bass’d funk of “Debut”. The latter track grooves in a characteristically goofy Deerhoof-ian manner while doing a fairly authentic job of approximating hip-hop-tinged electro-clash, in the process evoking the illusory suspicion that we’ve entered some alternative reality where pop took a slightly different, slightly stranger path through history. That the band focus specifically on the ’80s in their mining and reimagining of music history should come as no surprise in view of how they all must have grown up during that decade of Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson, yet there’s nonetheless a certain irony involved in relying on the well-trodden past to manufacture the inimitable freshness that comes only with novelty. Sad as it is to say, it’s almost as though they are, after all, simply quoting or signifying something once novel as a substitute for actually making something novel of their own.
Then again, even though they’re undoubtedly reusing the past, it’s clear they’re not reusing it wholesale. For every old-school rebellion like “Dispossessor” and “Plastic Thrills”, there’s a twee-cum-psychotic “Kafe Mania!” or “Life is Suffering” to prove that Deerhoof still know something about mixing a dozen different riffs and moods into a single song. What’s more, they do in fact seem better at this mixing now, blending rather than banging their disparate elements into continuous wholes that flow towards almost logical conclusions. That’s “almost”, though, because even after more than twenty years, the band are still very much about lulling their victims into false senses of security, about stopping or starting bursts of noise just when we didn’t expect them, and about generally confounding our expectations as to what a rock band can do with their instruments. Only this time, they’ve layered their unpredictability in a reassuringly familiar sheen of lo-fi heat, somehow creating the (literally false but abstractly true) illusion that their postmodern magic has been with us since the dawn of pop.