Album du jour: Deerhoof, “La Isla Bonita”



Some day, hopefully not soon, this old orb or ours will stop spinning.  Then and perhaps only then will Deerhoof no longer keep putting out some of the most stimulating sounds in all of American music.  Come to think of it, maybe the two events wouldn’t be a coincidence…

In twenty years since their founding in San Francisco, with a few shifts in personnel and musical focus along the way, Deerhoof have self-produced and issued a baker’s dozen albums, finding their stride about half-way through.  Haven’t heard ’em?  Well, imagine the piledriver beat of The Ramones, the skittery melodies of Frank Zappa, the infernal din of Sonic Youth, the rusty-knife guitars of Dinosaur, Jr., the polyrhythms or Stravinsky, the razor-sharpness of your favorite string quartet, mash ’em all together — and you’re still missing the secret ingredients.

What gives Deerhoof their Deerhoofness comes right at you as soon as you hit “play” on their new album:  A bright beat is established by percussive, pitchless plucks from the guitarist on the right, then following an ultra-brief suspenseful silence, vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki introduces the first melodic and lyrical idea, a descending perfect fourth melisma on the word “girls.”  That’s the drummer’s cue to get into the action, adding an infectious beat to the guitar plucks.  But what about those girls?  Be patient.  After a few iterations of the rhythmic cycle, Matsuzaki is back to tell us more: “Girls,” this time on an extended melisma, “who are smart.”  She repeats the phrase with altered lyric and added cowbell (somewhere Christopher Walken is smiling): “Girls…who will test.”  Enter the left guitar and bass with their respective licks, enriching the rhythmic complexity, then once more with those girls and their tests…

At which point I will mercifully break off this potted analysis of “Paradise Girls,” the first track on the album “La Isla Bonita,” and leave the rest to you.  The point is not that we should always listen to this or any music this way  — what a dreadful thought.  The point is that behind the thudding drums, crunching guitars and Matsuzaki’s delightfully odd and childlike vocals, there’s lots of smart stuff going on.  These aren’t just songs, they’re compositions.

Can Deerhoof be too clever for their own good?  That’s the risk, one that they mitigate by keeping things brief, unpredictable and, best of all, rocking.  And the symbiosis of their visceral appeal and their intelligence — of brain and brawn — is why I love them.

As Deerhoof albums go, “La Isla Bonita” is pretty straightforward in its bare-bones instrumentation, moderately lo-fi production and (relatively) cogent compositions. While it’s a quality one normally wouldn’t associate with Deerhoof, a stream of lyricism runs through several numbers, though it’s only drawn from for occasional telling moments (e.g., the conclusion of “Black Pitch”).  If you have to start somewhere with Deerhoof, and please do, it might as well be here.

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