Some bands, particularly the ones that have been around for a really long time, have a tendency to fall by the wayside and draw less attention the more music they release. Okay, so maybe it’s not always less attention, but critical acclaim may be a more accurate word to describe it. You take one look at Spoon, who after last year’s “Transference” found themselves in a place where plenty of people loved their record but not quite enough to earn them a mention at year’s end. The method of thought by some was that Spoon have put out such consistently good albums over the span of several years that we’ve become jaded and less thrilled by it. In other words, Spoon could be as great as they’ve always been, but it’s easier to dismiss it merely as “Spoon being Spoon” and getting more excited over a debut record from some new hot-to-trot band. You’ve been married for 20 years, for some mysterious reason you’re still getting regular (great) sex, but when the young new neighbor tries to seduce you one night while your spouse is out of town, it can be tough to resist. All analogies and metaphors aside, the same concept can be applied to a band like Deerhoof. They’ve been putting out albums consistently since 1997, and their 10th studio effort comes out this week in the form of “Deerhoof vs. Evil”.
One of the things that makes Deerhoof so unique is their unpredictability. There is what you could call the “Deerhoof sound”, and the reason it’s labeled as such is because no other bands make music similar to it. Jagged guitar riffs, percussion that goes from calm to insane at the drop of a hat (or hi-hat), synths or electronic elements that pop up out of nowhere, and Satomi Matsuzaki’s strange vocal tics and lyrics. Experimental rock, to be sure, but over the last 16 or so years the band has grown into a consistency where it’s all you expect from them. The way they keep it interesting is by constantly second guessing and re-arranging themselves in new ways. “Deerhoof vs. Evil” very much continues in that tradition, and once again the result is something fun, funny, weird and remarkably pop-centric. Opening track “Qui Dorn, Només Somia” begins with electronic beats leading into a frantically picked electric guitar and kitchen sink percussion but quickly dives into a much slower, more carefully composed melody for the first verse. After a brief xylophone and acoustic guitar breakdown that might be called a chorus, the second verse comes back with a louder, more instrumentally complicated version of what it was the first time around. The layers continue to build and build in a strange angular direction before finally dropping out in an instant. The entire time Satomi anchors things down with a French language vocal where clearly it’s less about what’s being said and more about the way she’s singing it. At first blush, “Behold A Marvel In the Darkness” is almost a normal-sounding pop song for Deerhoof, with vivid acoustic guitars and very traditional percussion holding steady as a small dose of electric guitar and harpsichord-tuned keyboards shimmer lightly. The acoustic guitars are all but gone or shoved way back in the mix to make room for some power chords on the electric guitars, balanced out by a few in-between moments of only keyboard as Satomi innocently asks, “What is this thing called love?”. A fuzzed out looped bass sample, mixed with some equally fuzzy ZZ Top-esque electric guitars give “The Merry Barracks” a psychedelic, krautrock base. Never content to stay in one place for too long, the track goes upbeat pop towards the end before surrendering to electronic insanity that turns the last 40 seconds of the song into one of the wilder moments on the record. There’s some Spanish acoustic guitars and maracas that craft a gorgeous slow melody for “No One Asked to Dance”, and there’s a hint of romance in the air for the duration. Outside of the emergence of some bass and harpsichord though, everything stays remarkably charming from beginning to end and it’s nice to hear the band maintain that even keel for once.
Don’t kick yourself if you’ve never heard “Let’s Dance the Jet” before, even though it’s a cover. The band picked the instrumental off the soundtrack to an obscure Greek film and decided to try their own rendition of it. High pitched keyboards compete with distorted electric guitars for a thrilling minute and a half of back-and-forths that does feel like it could have been the backing music for an action-packed movie from the 60s or 70s. Speaking of action-packed, if the band is fighting evil as the title of the album suggests, “Super DUper Rescue Heads!” could very well serve as their theme song. Synths sparkle, the bass has a nice buzz to it, and there’s even some Nintendo-like electronic sound effects mixed in for added effect. “Hello, you lucky so-and-so,” Satomi sings with an implied wink and a smile, right before the electric guitars come in and break out a rousing chorus. “Must Fight Current” is interesting in how it blends more Spanish-influenced acoustic guitar with a very bossa nova melody and vocals. and “Secret Mobilization” gets all 1970s courtesy of some funky keyboards before exploding huge with some extremely heavy electric guitars. Between the acoustic guitars, handclaps and light keyboards, “I Did Crimes For You” is about the cheeriest and cutest song about illegal activity you’ll hear so far in 2011. When Satomi says “This is a stickup/smash the windows”, she does so with such innocence that it’s practically like having a a small child pointing a hand in the shape of a gun at you and demanding you reach for the sky. And closing out the record, “Almost Everyone, Almost Always” is a gorgeous synth-washed dreamscape that features just a couple small moments of offbeat percussion and even a touch of programmed violin. It’s just one great final example of how the band continues to evolve and incorporate new sounds into their already robust array of instruments.
After making such oddball and unique music for so many years and surviving to the point where they’re even doing relatively well these days, Deerhoof flex their muscles and show no signs of slowing down or holding back on “Deerhoof vs. Evil”. Their continued dedication towards changing things up While still satisfying long-time fans is admirable and highly interesting. To say that the band has stepped away from or at least reduced some of their most avant-garde tendencies isn’t really correct, mostly because no two of their records sound that much alike in the first place. Then again, such a perspective is all relative to the depth of knowledge you have of Deerhoof’s catalogue as well as your tolerance of off-key and experimental music. Most accurately, it could be said that “Deerhoof vs. Evil” does a great job at merging some of the band’s oldest and newest influences into something of a non-greatest hits album that also pushes in new directions. The 70s influence that permeates a handful of tracks on the record isn’t something they’ve really tried in earnest before, and it leads towards a fuller, more cinematic sound in many cases – particularly when compared with their last album “Offend Maggie”. The more liberal use of electronic and digital noises reaches a little farther back in their catalogue too. Much of it is thanks to guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Ed Rodriguez, who joined the band in time for their last record but wasn’t quite used to the best of his abilities. Well, the more time you spend with a person the more you learn about what their capable of, which is why Rodriguez’s presence is much more beneficial than it was two years ago. The band is better balanced and whipsmart as ever, even as they move into darker territory by occasionally implying that sometimes in order to properly fight evil, you need to get a little evil yourself. Those are the methods that comic book superheroes such as The Green Hornet and Batman have used to great success, and in a case of real-life art imitating fictional art, Deerhoof does the same with similar results.