Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Deerhoof returns to cast a jaundiced eye at American hubris

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Deerhoof’s La Isla Bonita is all about repetition, mantras, lacerating chords, and joyful, cacophonous catharsis. Singer-bassist Satomi Matsuzaki spits out her lyrics as if they’re divine mantras, finding profundity in the mundane, while guitarists John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez strike an uncanny balance between harmony and discordance. The group’s glue is Greg Saunier’s minimalist approach to the drums; he often relies on nothing but a bass tom, ratty cymbals, and a strategically deployed snare. But what’s most impressive about Deerhoof is its ineffable chemistry, instilled by 20 years of recording and relentless gigging.

To paraphrase the Minutemen, Deerhoof jams econo, but they compensate for what’s lacking in sonic fidelity and big-budget studios with sheer inventiveness. It’s prevalent throughout La Isla Bonita—like on the grizzled stabs of Dieterich’s guitar punctuating the off-kilter, stuttering grind of arpeggios on “Last Fad,” which finds Matsuzaki urging, “Baseball is canceled / E.T. is running late / New from America,” a line that sounds simultaneously like a condemnation and celebration of gluttonous American culture.

“Doom” cuts straight to the marrow of the album, as Matsuzaki quixotically questions where an American would want to live in the United States, before delivering the excoriation, “Deny / Bow your Head / Pray / Or save up to leave for Holland or Scandinavia.” What renders the track so powerful is the manner in which the anthemic riffs belie the gravitas at the heart of the track. “Deny” is repeated fervently by Matsuzaki, but the bile with which it’s imbued is slyly obscured by the ebullient twin guitars.

And indeed, Deerhoof embodies the “get in the van” ethos of the ’80s indie underground perhaps better than any act currently operating: It’s political without being didactic, savvy and consistently brilliant enough to cultivate a mid-size audience to sustain its efforts, and offers little threat of a mainstream breakthrough. Deerhoof is just too damn esoteric and uncompromising to even consider it.

On “Exit Only,” Matsuzaki chants over lightning bolt power chords, “You enter U.S.A. / Welcome to speech of freedom / Thank you for coming / Get out now,” insidiously reaching the arresting apotheosis message-wise of La Isla Bonita and effectively capturing what it’s like to exist in the cognitive dissonance-laden ’10s. She doesn’t succumb to trite sloganeering, instead acting as the voice of a band operating on its own righteous terms. It’s a microcosm of this superb album, one that finds Deerhoof reaching a pinnacle on its most assured, compelling work to date.