Record Review: Deerhoof’s Deerhoof vs. Evil

Deerhoof: Deerhoof vs. EvilDeerhoof: Deerhoof vs. Evil (Polyvinyl, 1/25/11)

Deerhoof: “Merry Barracks”

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It’s so easy to get caught up in Deerhoof’s little eccentricities that it’s worth reminding people that the quartet is also a solid rock outfit — albeit with a supremely jagged sense of rhythm. Deerhoof tends to play these sides against each other expertly: Satomi Matsuzaki’s vocals are usually the first thing to throw people off, but they also often center the songs with hooky energy. Greg Saunier’s scurrying, splattered drums give the songs a feeling of constant ambush, but also let you know that all this madness is definitely going somewhere.

Deerhoof’s work often shows how much craft, instinct, and care goes into sounding bonkers. Deerhoof Vs. Evil bets that those qualities can remain when the racket is turned down. That’s not to say the record lacks the band’s usual joyous frivolity, or even that there’s less of it going on at once; it just offers chances to slow down and appreciate how pretty Deerhoof’s music can be.

That’s a refreshing direction to hear after the band’s last full-length in 2008, Offend Maggie. For as strong as that album is, the blocky, straining chords of “The Tears And Music Of Love” and “My Purple Past” sound like a band trying to wear itself out on blunt-force rocking for good. Evil looks for resources outside the drum-driven rock format and exerts unabashed, spit-shined control over what it finds.

The big surprise of “Super Duper Rescue Heads!” is how softly and bashfully Matsuzaki sings her verses. The way she delivers “me to the rescue” becomes a slogan for hugs and friendly reassurances, not putting on capes and throwing punches. The song never upsets the initial feeling of being caught sweetly off guard. It piles up with playful rhythms and interjecting squeaks, but all of this comes in rather carefully in the background, or off to the side. “Secret Mobilization,” on the other hand, asks to be kicked around a bit, and it gets what’s coming to it. It bumps along coolly for two-and-a-half minutes until Ed Rodriguez and John Dieterich’s guitars come in, slashing it down to the raw goodness of a single hook.

Even then, the band doesn’t get up to the levels of adrenaline that it sometimes did on The Runners Four and Apple O’. The abrasion serves a different kind of balance than just pulverizing your center of balance. Apple tracks like “Dummy Discards A Heart” played with the thrill of jamming a lot of power into a hotly confined space. Deerhoof Vs. Evil helps itself to more space and enjoys it. The acoustic guitars on “No One Asked To Dance” get a production treatment as full and elegant as the melodies they’re playing. There’s equal confidence and patience in Matsuzaki’s vocals: “dance all night, ask for more.” It’s as if Deerhoof is tenuously embarking on its first grown-up date. Even those who forever insist that Matsuzaki’s vocals are just “childlike” or “baby talk” will finally have to notice what strong leadership and cracked complexity she adds to Deerhoof’s songs.

On some Deerhoof albums, the songs that are heavier on male vocals tend to feel like queasy breaks in the action (think “Odyssey” from The Runners Four). “Must Fight Current” has the opposite effect here. Dieterich and Matsuzaki trade suave sentence fragments across the mix, easing the album further in all of the unexpected directions that it’s already going. The song doubles the pleasure of reading a Deerhoof lyrics sheet: “Satomi: away, oh. away, oh. away, oh. away, oh. / John: ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba.” Matsuzaki doesn’t even sing on the final track, “Almost Everyone, Almost Always,” and yet that’s the song that finally helps the album feel a little more complete — or at least ends it on a strangely romantic note.

In fact, the friendly, tender moments make it hard to stay in the mood for campy tracks like “The Merry Barracks” and “Let’s Dance The Jet.” “I Did Crimes For You” has a little of both to it. Matsuzaki has a lot of practice finding charm in lines like “this is a stick-up / smash the windows / people leader guerrilla,” and the chorus is yet another moment when Deerhoof lets a pretty melody be a pretty melody. Usually, you’d find yourself admiring how that melody builds off all the noisy tension and chaos in Deerhoof’s music, but here the big dramatic shift comes when there’s suddenly less tension.

“I Did Crimes For You” is yet another song on the album that takes on more layers without building up to that good old Deerhoof feeling of frantic, beaming overload. There’s a constant feeling here that the band wants to go somewhere else with its energy. It never quite hits the peaks of Deerhoof’s last two albums, but rest assured that Deerhoof is still having a deliriously good time just being Deerhoof.

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