Sunday, February 6, 2011

Deerhoof- Deerhoof Vs. Evil

Admission of guilt time: in retrospect, I overrated Deerhoof's last album, Offend Maggie. Of all of their post 2003 records, it's the one that stuck with me the least, and I could never pinpoint what causes this. Perhaps if I listened to it in the shuffled-around-vinyl-tracklisting format? Hmm, nope. It finally took their new release, Deerhoof Vs. Evil, to help me understand my lack of love for their last one: Offend Maggie is good but unsatisfying; solid but underwhelming. I'm sorry to say that similar problems arise with Vs. Evil, though to a greater extent and in slightly different ways.

The first thing that'll strike you about Vs. Evil is how varied and lush it sounds. Moreso than even the de-facto double album, The Runners Four, this is Deerhoof at their most searching and expansive. They've brought back a good deal of the keyboard heavy electro-experiments of the Green Cosmos EP as well as the art-damaged pop of Friend Opportunity and cut all of this with the hard edged riffs, stop on a dime time spastic song structures, and sing-song-vocals-married-to-noise-pop of their older material. Which means a genuinely lovely acoustic track like 'No One Asked To Dance' juts up against the flashy krautrock-meets-Led Zeppelin-meets-prog-rock-keyboards instrumental 'Let's Dance The Jet', which in turn is succeeded by 'Super Duper Rescue Heads!', one of the band's best attempts at writing a mangled pop song. Meanwhile, much credit for the lushness must go to the band for producing Vs. Evilthemselves, since having two or so years to futz with layers of sound let them produce their most detailed record ever. It took my a close listen on headphones to begin to enjoy this one, so if you're still struggling to “get” this one, I recommend that approach.

With credit for lushness must also come the main blame for the shortcomings of Deerhoof Vs. Evil. There's an album title by the Doobie Brothers called “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits” and this is something that comes up in my head while listening to Vs Evil. Understand that Deerhoof were never ones to sit down and write a straight up pop song; they always throw in some unexpected noise or turn-on-a-dime song structures to throw you off, while the lyrics are simplistic sing along fodder (a la 'Panda Panda Panda') or poetic/surreal pidgin English (a la 'Siriustar'). On Vs. Evil, these vices-now-habits are starting to get in the way of their music because there is just as often a feeling of “been there, done that” to this album as there is a sense of newness and discovery. There are certain rhythmic, textural, and melodic tropes that are lifted almost wholesale from past Deerhoof releases. The cadence and general feel of 'Hey I Can' is heavily reminiscent of 'Basket Ball Get Your Groove Back', made even worse by the grating repetition of single words as lyrics. Furthermore, the last minute or so of 'Behold A Marvel In The Darkness' is what you'd make if someone tasked you with recording a Deerhoof parody, while 'The Merry Barracks' is practically a Cliff's Notes to their entire discography.

Due to the unfortunate marriage of new ideas and re-packaged old ones, Deerhoof Vs. Evil suffers from its variety instead of being boosted by it. To say the album lacks a sense of flow and cohesion still feels inadequate. Years ago, I remember reading an interview with drummer Greg Saunier about how the band always argued and sweated over the tracklisting of their albums. I don't mean to be insulting though I'm going to say it: perhaps they shouldn't if this is the best they can do. The first and last songs feel like they're appropriately placed while everything in between comes off like a particularly good b-side/outtakes collection instead of a proper studio album with careful pacing and flow.

Deerhoof Vs. Evil is going to be one of those albums that divides its audience. Much of your enjoyment or lack thereof will depend on your familiarity with their music, and how far you're willing to indulge their vices-now-habits in pursuit of appreciating the new ideas on this record. I have a feeling I'm going to be revisiting this album from time to time and completely changing my opinion of it, though I don't see that as a bad thing. True, as with Offend Maggie I am left feeling oddly underwhelmed and unsatisfied with this one. But it's been some time since a record confounded me and I was compelled to stick with it past writing a review. Vs. Evil is worth a listen for that reason alone even though I have strong reservations about it.

3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5


Thomas Caldwell Novels said...

I just found your blog and I find myself nodding in agreement. You're very eloquent about music, and I think I'll have to take some of your suggestions. Deerhoof Vs. Evil was probably my most anticipated album of this year, but you're right; it sadly falls short of the mark they've created for themselves. I doubt thier carreer is over, by any stretch, but they seem to have fallen into a slump. The biggest issue, I feel, is a hesitance to just rock out like they used to, perhaps eschewing awesome metal riffs for condensed Friend Opportunity pop structure (which really only worked on FO itself).

I look forward to reading more of your posts! Thanks.

Thomas Caldwell Novels said...

I just found your blog on the random blog button, and I have to say I find myself nodding in agreement with many of your points. You're very eloquent on the subject.
Deerhoof Vs. Evil was the album I was most looking forward to this year, and I have to say it unfortunately fell short of the mark they've set for themselves really for the reasons you stated. I sincerely hope they haven't used up the stores of experimentalism, but this album just seems searching and confused. Which is not to say it's bad, Deerhoof at thier worst is still impressive, but this just felt like they were trying hard but just not going anywhere.
Well I'll have to take a look at some of your other reviews now and see if anything catches my eye. Thanks!