Review Summary: A near-perfect convergence of the abrasive and the whimsical.
Ever since their inception, Deerhoof have always had the unique ability of combining a whimsical atmosphere with strong punk and noise rock leanings. The way they could switch from one mode to another at the flick of the wrist gave them both an incredibly loyal cult following and a lot of indie cred, but their influence is not just limited to that either. Radiohead, St. Vincent, Foo Fighters, and a whole slew of other musicians have been either influenced by or appreciative of Deerhoof’s work, putting them in that King’s X-esque category of “bands who aren’t mainstream, but influenced the bands who are
in the mainstream.” On top of that, despite the band’s penchant for noisy songs, they’re just so easy to listen to! Fast punchy riffs, catchy melodies and lyrics, and short runtimes are the mainstays of the majority of their records; in fact, I’d say the only real idiosyncrasy of the band comes in the form of lead singer and bassist Satomi Matsuzaki. Her high-pitched, childlike vocal delivery is a huge driving force in the band’s compelling weirdness - as are the lyrics, of course. So, with this clash of the benign and harsh, I suppose it comes as no surprise that the band eventually released a concept album with the whole “twisted fairytale” approach. In this case, the album is Milkman
and the malicious character is the one who bears the same name.
The central conceit of Milkman
’s tale is that of the titular character seeming innocent and friendly until he starts kidnapping people and trapping them in his lair. There’s not much more to say about the story than that, but Deerhoof work off this concept beautifully. Every hard-rocking number sounds so ramshackled and loose that you’d swear the band’s instruments were gonna fall apart at any point; just listen to the garage-like drumming of “Giga Dance” or the relentless distorted single-note riffs of the opening title track. But the band never do
let that happen, as the softer and more wondrous moments balance them out at just the right moments for a good sense of contrast. Just when that title track threatens to get too loud or too raucous, the verses immediately bring the volume down to soften the blow; they somehow sound both sinister and sweet at the same time. And some songs are just flat-out gorgeous; “Dream Wanderer’s Tune” hosts a dizzying array of layered synths and a slow dreamlike tempo, making you feel as if you’re literally floating on a cloud as you listen. But even the softer moments maintain a strange dissonance, whether it be some atonal piano chords that populate the electronic beats of “Desaparecere” or even “Dream Wanderer Tune”’s melancholic second half. Basically, the premise of this album in a musical
sense is that much of the record sounds comforting, but also just uncomfortable enough that you’re always on edge for the next bizarre motif or riff to rear its head.
Honestly, that seems fitting for a concept in which you’re trapped in a place that seems inviting. That twisted kind of juxtaposition is communicated well by the music, and once in a while you’ll get songs like “Milking” or “Song of Sorn” which merge both the loveliest and darkest elements of the album into a single strange-yet-compelling mixture. Especially noteworthy is the former track, which is perhaps the best song of the entire record. It pretty much captures an entire summary of Deerhoof’s storied career into a single song; abrasive, noisy rock passages, a high-energy punk motif, a whimsical bridge, and lots of dynamic and rhythmic variety to top it off. But luckily, the rest of the album doesn’t fall far behind. Really, the only track that could have been left off the record is “Dog on the Sidewalk,” which is just a pointless afterthought of glitchy effects and boring vocals; at only a minute and a half, it just feels tacked on. But that’s really about it as far as “afterthoughts” go, with everything else fitting neatly with the album’s fascinating - if creepy - themes. Deerhoof always deserved more than to just be a band for the indie hipsters to enjoy, so make this your first journey with them if you can. It’s both a perfect place to start and a beautiful experience in its own right.