Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I Actually Like: Deerhunter's Microcastle

Much like Deerhoof, I've tried to get into Deerhunter for a long time. On paper, the band sounds like perfection: signed to Kranky, weird, overbearing vocalist with a host of personal problems (not to sound callous, but this describes at least 75% of my favorite singers), equal parts shoegaze, psych rock, and ambient music. But shit, as they say, just did not add up.

Most Deerhunter songs start off interesting but go nowhere. Whereas a Guided By Voices song (and GBV are a good comparison since Deerhunter frontman/lead songwriter Bradford Cox is equally as prolific as Bob Pollard) cycles through an album's worth of hooks in one song, a Deerhunter song finds one pretty melody or one pleasantly cycling bassline and runs it into the ground. To convince the listener the song is progressing, liberal amounts of fuzz and echo are applied to every sound in the mix after, say, the 2:00 mark.

It's not like I'm sort of pop purist who can only enjoy songs with a verse-chorus-middle eight structure, because the Deerhunter songs I listen to the most are the droning, soft-focus intstrumentals. When it comes to ambient or drone or wallpaper music or whatever you want to call music that just sort of drifts by you, I love pretty much everything that doesn't sound like a Wyndham Hill compilation. But if you're going to write songs, please don't half-ass it and try to coast on one good idea.

Microcastle, unlike previous Deerhunter efforts, actually has songs that sound finished. Not to mention much more dynamic production, courtesy of Nicolas Vernhes. Check out "Never Stops" which has a wonderfully twinkling and sweeping chorus (a chorus?! who'd a thunk it?):

Despite my enjoyment of Microcastle, I find this hilarious.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

I Will Never Like: Deerhoof

Being someone who never wants to miss out on something good, I've spent years trying to get into Deerhoof. Since a lot of music and movies I like now I would have hated a few years ago, I had every reason to believe Deerhoof and myself were just bound click sooner or later. One day I would exclaim "I get it! I hear the great songs where once I only heard rote 'art-punk' and a tuneless Japanese woman screaming!"

It almost happened. After getting Apple O from the library for the third time, I opened my mind wide--Inland Empire/Captain Beefheart wide--and I heard something. There was an innocent and infectious energy in vocalist Satomi Matsukazi's voice that I hadn't heard before, and I became aware of the fact that many of the songs actually had nice little melodies, even if they seldom repeated. I dutifully placed the album on my iPod and got ready to embrace Deerhoof with open arms in a matter of weeks.

Of course that didn't happen. Apple O was one of those albums that never seemed to fit a mood of mine. Sure, there was the infrequent occasions when I wanted to hear something foreign to my normal listening habits, but even then I'd get sick of the album halfway through.

Certainly the Shonen Knife/Cibo Matto factor plays a part in my inability to enjoy the band. For those unfamiliar with either of the two bands mentioned, they were both symptomatic of the 90s hipsters tendency to fetishize cute Japanese people, especially cute Japanese girls. Cibo Matto were a duo who sang a ton of songs about food (Cibo Matto is Italian for "crazy food") and were fawned over by the usual suspects: Beastie Boys, Sean Lennon, Beck; Shonen Knife were a three piece all girl punk band who also sang about food a lot and were showered with praise by Kurt Cobain and Sonic Youth, who treated them as if they were geniuses.

With Shonen Knife especially, this adoration reeked of patronization. Had the band been made up of three ordinary looking American teenage girls and released the same records, no one would have ever heard of them. It was the offensive notion that somehow Japanese people are purer and less self-conscious than us ugly Americans that fueled the fandom, and that I'm sure contributed to many of the performers at the first Pitchfork Festival referring to Satomi Matsuzaki as a "true rock star" when Deerhoof performed there a few years ago. In this specific hipster mindset, the worst crime would be to try to be a rock star, but a Japanese woman with boundless energy and stilted English certainly couldn't be trying to be anything but herself, right?

I don't want to make this the whole story about Deerhoof, but it's something that bothers me a lot and I find it hard not to imagine people enjoying the band on that level when I'm listening to them.

The new song "Chandelier Searchlight," whose video is above, is certainly less abrasive than a lot of the band's songs, and the chorus is charming, but ultimately it still leaves me feeling the same sort of blah as everything else I've heard from them. It's settled: I will never like Deerhoof.