San Franciso’s experimental art-pop collective Deerhoof have always taken a firm stance against convention and compliance with their unorthodox, often otherworldly music. They have managed to confound their critics as much as they have captivated them, as the distinct challenge to describe their unique, idiosyncratic sound routinely fades away as the listener is invariably swept up in their relentlessly upbeat melodies, Satomi Matsuzaki’s cheerleader-type lyrics and Greg Saunier’s polyrhythmic eccentricities. And while it clearly is impossible to put Deerhoof’s avant-garde sonic style within a tidy, descriptive box, they are decidedly so far removed from the confines of traditional pop-music that they essentially have one of the most recognizable sounds in the industry simply because its so entirely their own.
But on their 11th studio record, the playfully punchy Deerhoof vs. Evil, the enterprising quartet doesn’t change their intricate formula as much as they reimagine the parameters a bit. And while their music will never be solely (or accurately) described as accessible, there are clearly methods to find your way into their labyrinthine cluster of sounds, but often the group leaves finding a way out entirely up to us. And that is both the beauty and the difficulty of Deerhoof’s music; sometimes you get left stranded in unfamiliar territory for too long and things start to get strange in a hurry.
But there are enough recognisable sonic touchstones layered within these songs so the listener doesn’t feel entirely lost. In the dynamic lead-off track ‘Qui Dorm, Només Somia,’ (which translates splendidly to ‘About sleep, just dream’) there are elements of the atonal guitar work of Dirty Projectors within the cacophonous, Latin-flavored rhythms. While the furiously funky, percussion-driven ‘The Merry Barracks’ and ‘Let’s Dance The Jet,’ both have elements of the untamed tempo and indefatigable pulse of Battles. But again, these are just identifiable musical echoes that linger just long enough while the band moves along quickly, on their way to a destination only they are remotely familiar with.
The leisurely acoustic strum of ‘Behold A Marvel In The Darkness’ and ‘No One Asked To Dance’ are initially both welcoming and warm, but that proves to be just a diversion on the former track, as it unfolds into a Sonic Youth-like squall that entirely breaks down the tame template offered at the start. The jocular song titles that the band loves are still ever-present, with ‘Super Duper Rescue Heads!,’ ‘C’Moon,’ and ‘I Did Crimes For You’ all creating many different questions that the tracks themselves don’t ever directly attempt to answer. For these are puzzles as much as they are songs, with each band member carefully fitting their disparate arrangements around the inventive instrumentation of their talented bandmates.
For all the combative qualities conjured up by the album’s adversarial title, the music found on the record is far from quarrelsome and contentious, as even a song as aggressively-named as ‘Must Fight Current’ has a restful, relaxed cadence that belies its hostile intentions. And that ever-present dichotomy has been present in Deerhoof’s music right from the start, as they have been throwing sonic curveballs at their fans for years, where interpretations remain intentionally ambiguous, and song meanings are merely unnecessary constraints thrust on the band by people who don’t really get the point in the first place. Perhaps that is exactly the ‘Evil’ that the band is ultimately fighting against, the customary need for orderly classification of everything, be it art, beliefs, background, or status. And while they fundamentally will never win that battle against a society that is far too set in their ways, on this album at least, Deerhoof are the clear winners of a fight that they were never in fear of losing.