The now 11-album veterans of Deerhoof have become such an insular, unique, exciting audible package that it’s impossible to recognize their sound as anything but. This is all true, despite their conscious, perpetual drive to keep things changing, to keep from stagnating, yet polishing and refining aspects of their sound to a diamond perfection. Bassist/vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki may be the most immediately recognizable aspect of the band (her child-like, almost language-less vocals are particularly hers), but drummer Greg Saunier’s idiosyncratic, thumping rhythms, and the essentially dueling, math-y guitars of Ed Rodriguez and John Dieterich are equally essential to the mix. This album, though, is definitely more a refiner than a driver, the group reveling in the middle ground of jamming and hard rock song-writing that they found on 2008’s Offend Maggie.
To be sure, this disc doesn’t have as many “Panda Panda Panda” moments as it does “+81″s. The heady jam of opener “Qui Dorm, Nome’s Somia” is a slow-burning song rather than a theme. It’s full of unexpected swacks of rhythmic jumbles and rapid chord changes, but it doesn’t have a repeated theme or hook, instead relying on atmosphere and build. It’s not as direct, certainly, as the aforementioned “+81” (off of 2007’s Friend Opportunity) but it seems to work in a similar sort of ethos in which the cute (which almost no one does quite like Deerhoof) is left behind for aggression, if often a playful, puppy with a chew toy aggression.
“Behold a Marvel in the Darkness” follows, equal parts twinkly synth and charging, distorted guitar riffs, a tune that relies on “complex interaction” (one lyric fragment picked out from many somehow-connected lines) of different parts before falling away. Rather than getting too overt, controlled, or overly serious, they allow their songs to follow their own path or build them into something that surprises with a smile. For instance, the self-destructive groove of “The Merry Barracks” works from gurgling synth and chaotic guitar chops into a wonky groove, complete with World War III talk of exploding atomic bombs, courtesy of Saunier. Then, once that becomes familiar and comfortable, there’s an insane guitar breakdown and a repeated “Oh no.” Rather than be recognizable as anything, any type of music, any song structure, any musical experience, they demand to be Deerhoof and are the better off for it. “Dog on the Sidewalk” would be annoying without “Dummy Discards a Heart”, which would be just another mathy indie rock jam without “Dog on the Sidewalk”. The constant change, the competing personalities strengthen each other.
The same way in which that logic works globally works locally as well, the disc works in that it combines. Matsuzaki’s cooing is paired with her guitar-matched talk-singing on “Super Duper Rescue Heads” (“You to the rescue, me to the rescue” turns into a chanting hook), just as the bubbling, soft synths and ramshackle, thrusting percussion keep the track interesting. In fact, two songs are sung/played at once on “Must Fight Current”, one by Dieterich (an almost Latinate groove with paranoid guitar picking), the other by Matsuzaki (a faraway crooning).
While this epitomizes what makes Deerhoof great, it isn’t a great Deerhoof album. It’s above average on a universal scale, but in their canon, this lands somewhere in the middle. This comes down to the fact that the best repeated-theme song (“I Did Crimes For You”) isn’t as epic, goofy, catchy as their best, and the most successful hard-rocking song (“Hey I Can”) may be rapid and melodic, but it lacks that essential triumphant moment.
All told, when the worst thing you can say about an album is that it falls underneath the band’s grand shadow, you know you’ve still got a pretty solid record. To a Deerhoof fan, I’d say “It’s pretty good, but nothing like Apple O’.” To a non-initiated, I’d say “If you think that’s good, just you wait.”