REVIEW: Deerhoof - "Breakup Song"

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Deerhoof - Breakup Song
Label: Polyvinyl Records
Release Date: Sept 4th, 2012

If one thing is certain about Deerhoof, it's that they’ve never had anything handed to them.  The astonishing accomplishment of remaining a band for nineteen years and releasing twelve full-length LPs should be enough for listeners to treat every new release with the same raving, cult-like reception that a new Sonic Youth album or a release from an elder band from the 90’s would bring forth today.  For some reason though, this is not the case.  We expect a new Deerhoof album because that’s all they’ve done for the last nineteen years: make music, tour, and repeat.  Sure, there have been several lineup changes, but that hasn't prevented their discography from standing as one of the most consistent collections of original music in the entire indie scene.  With each release, I scratch my head and wonder why we don’t treat Deerhoof like one of the most precious bands we have today.  They've been around long enough to gain that 90s nostalgia, indie pioneer label, and have never dropped the ball with a single release to even begin the debate that they should just hang it up, wait a decade, and hit the seemingly never-ending reunion tour road. 

So, what happened?  Going back to the beginning, Deerhoof has never had a break or handout.  To their own choosing, Deerhoof has never had a big radio hit or a song that could easily crossover into the households of middle America's top 40 listeners.  Throw in Deerhoof’s inventiveness and their desire to explore the boundaries of experimental music and then cut the “indie” fans in half between those who like it and those who don’t.  That leaves Deerhoof with twelve years of half the indie fans on their side.  It’s enough to keep them around in that medium sized text on festival posters, but it will never break them outside the world of “indie” listeners.  Maybe the most fascinating thing concerning Deerhoof is how many people know the name and have an opinion on the band, and how few of them actually have explored their full collection, or even a significant percentage of it.  Deerhoof can never be new again and it’s the biggest obstacle standing between them and acceptance as the active legends that they truly are.  Never having the crossover success drains some bands two or three albums into their career and seeing hundreds of bands shoot up in the mid 90s, late 90s, early 2000s, mid 2000s, and the last few years would leave the taste of jelousy and disdain in the mouths of most musicians.  Not Deerhoof.  They’re what music is all about: making art, showing it off all around the world, and then starting over again. And for nineteen years, they haven’t come close to receiving the respect they deserve.  But instead of letting it get to them, on their twelfth album, Deerhoof proves they’re as fresh as ever, and still making the music that they want, still pushing boundries with their blinders securely fastened.

Now, for the actual album.  Breakup Song is a fascinating collection of songs for two main reasons.  First, the whole record plays a lot like a Flying Lotus set.  From the press of play, the music mimics today’s DJ set, with short bursts of sounds being manipulated to create drop outs, reinterpretations of sounds already presented, and an ADD sensibility that still somehow seems focused.  Throughout the album, this DJ sensibility and the fact that real instruments are creating the experience forces the listener to both want to tap their feet and to analyze the pure talent a band must have in order to create these quick snippets of sound without simply cutting together stems.  This is the band moment to moment, unedited.  The sounds Deerhoof selects are much more electronic and bigger than most of their earlier works, which also plays into this DJ sensibility and also marks a bit of a departure for the group.  Even the most evil sounds on Breakup Song are crisp and inviting, whereas before, Deerhoof has been known the play up repetition and agitation to elicit specific responses in the listener.  What results is Breakup Song being one of the first Deerhoof albums that is a clean listen thoroughout, filled with one nice-sounding element after another with little to no agitation for artistic purposes.

Building off this, lead singer and sometime bassist Satomi Matsuzaki changes up her vocal approach on Breakup Song to make the songwriting even more universal.  Much like they will with most artists with a unique approach to singing (see Joanna Newsom, Dylan, Cohen, Waits), a large group of listeners will just automatically judge that the music simply isn't for their sensibilities.  On Breakup Song, there is a shift from Matsuzaki’s often repetitious one liners and choppy vocals that get stuck in your head (think Panda Panda Panda) to a newer approach of having full chorus lines that linger long after the record has stopped spinning.  It’s still not a pop one-liner, but Matsuzaki blends her love for lyrical repetition in longer form with the band’s back and forth structure, so by the end of the song, a non-traditional chorus takes on the same effect as a verse/chours/verse pop song.  This is the first Deerhoof I can remember where I wake up the next day humming not just one moment, but snippets of the whole album throughout the day.

Even with the mimicking of today’s DJ’s approach to cutting up music and Matsuzaki easing her vocals a little, Breakup Song is still a "traditional" Deerhoof record.  Ironically enough, what I mean by traditional is that it doesn’t sound like anything else out there.  “Bad Kids to the Front” plays like the American Beauty theme twisted through sputtering electronics and quick breaks of broken fax machine bleeps and bloops.  “The Trouble with Candyhands” is an infectious pop song that adds its own twisted elements of rumba music and the occasional shift to that razor strummed guitar Deerhoof is known for.  “Mario’s Flaming Whiskers III” could easily be played at a house music club or sit in the deepest crates of fringe music fans.  The whole album, while extremely accessible for Deerhoof, is still just that - a Deerhoof album.  You should expect all of the same experimentation and breaking of norms that they’ve presented for the last nineteen years.

A few weeks ago over dinner with a few friends obsessed with Deerhoof, we started to debate which album was our favorite.  Between the three of us, we each struggled between picking three that were independent to our own selections.  One person couldn’t decide between Reveille, Green Cosmos, and Offend Maggie.  The other loved the first three works and Friend Oppertunity.  I couldn't and wouldn’t dare pick between Milk Man, Apple 0’, and The Runners Four.  Clearly, if they had just made one mind-blowing album, Deerhoof would be a different band.  Instead, they've released one great album after another for nineteen years, each release exploring new sounds and offering something completely unique.  I can’t help but think that if Deerhoof had released Breakup Song back at the beginning, the masses would be referring to them in the same breath as their larger-named 90s contemporaries, or the bands that they played mentor to in the 2000s.  Instead, for us Deerhoof die-hards, let’s just embrace the fact that Breakup Song continues their nineteen-year track record of delivering one quality album after another, and should make a worthy permanent addition to the forever head-scratching dinner conversation that is the wonderful Deerhoof discography.

1 comment:

  1. The world needs more reviews like this.