My magic moment for Deerhoof — the moment I realized the band could do whatever they wanted and make it sound amazing — comes at the end of The Runners Four, about halfway into “Rrrrrrright.” The song starts up like a ragged motorbike, and you think it’s going to be another charged, satisfying Kraut-y thing that indie bands do from time to time. But no, the song throws you for a loop, because the beat gets too off-kilter and proggy, kind of mean but kind of happy too, and you can’t quite tell where it’s headed, even while trying to anticipate every next move. Then it stops, suddenly, until it starts squawking like a dying chicken.
“Rrrrrrright” is one of the first songs I had heard from the band, and when I first experienced that jolt of silence, I was… perplexed, if not annoyed. But was this a present for me? Oddly, the nothing here started to become kind of something, and I actually began enjoying it. Now? I can’t wait for that punk silence. Why do I still remember those chicken sounds? What was I hearing there and why is it now, in retrospect, so much more satisfying and intense and musical and magical than anything I could had predicted?
The Magic is Deerhoof’s 13th full-length album, and it’s one of their most well-rounded, sweeter offerings, perhaps a companion to Friend Opportunity or Offend Maggie in size and spirit. It’s also the best for right now, in our current context, with diverse influences blended to transcend homage, a rejuvenated splash of punk cheer in a year of focused albums and single ideas. It might be a teachable moment.
The press for The Magic has this curious bit about how the band is drawing from music they liked “when they were kids” on this record, cutting loose their arty pretensions and taking influences from hair metal and doo-wop and hip-hop and so on — many many genres. But to be honest, I kind of figured this was already happening with Deerhoof, wasn’t it? The band is irreverent and avant-garde, surely, but it’s always been in a way that reflected critically on their surroundings while remaining deeply affectionate to their forebears. They never seemed intentionally disruptive so much as permanently convinced that better sounds lay in oft-tread musical paths; the band just needed a good shake-up to find them.
Songs like “Learning To Apologize Effectively,” “Plastic Thrills,” and “Little Hollywood” are all perfect examples of Deerhoof’s finesse in making the cut, just barely landing in a sweet spot of cute misdirection and mean mighty rock, with “Little Hollywood” landing with the crisper, more mature feel of Breakup Song and “Thrills” splitting the difference between a hundred overexposed garage riffs. Meanwhile, “Kafe Mania,” “Life Is Suffering,” and “Criminals of the Dream” bear similar signposts from past albums, especially the bass-y, dense rhythm sections. But each song hits a development point around the halfway mark — a new countermelody, a dissonant blast, Greg Saunier playing like Animal — that makes things considerably more interesting.
“Kafe” puts call-and-response and harmonizing guitars up to its nonsense lyrics (there are a lot of coffee drink names), treating its one-note idea with splendid sincerity until it feels 10 times the song it once was. “Suffering” breaks the tension of the opening groove, which is rigidly anti-funky, with a kind of stoned soft-rock chorus (“Life is suffering, man/ Higher and higher and higher!”), softening it with a salve like two buddies having a tough conversation about life. And “Dreamers” becomes a wondrous little centerpiece, one of the defining Deerhoof songs if I’ve heard one, elevating one nice idea (“It’s okay to dream at night”) into a lovely missive of self-celebration amidst sympathetic synths and soulful guitars.
There are a few lesser moments on the second half of the album, like the stilted flow of “Debut” or “Acceptance Speech,” yet they still have hooks worth revisiting. The only clear misstep I spot on the record would have to be “Dispossessor,” a Satomi-less solo turn for John Dieterich that dips a little too deep into the garage-rock revival well and can’t be pulled out by her usually omnipresent, buoying voice. While “That Ain’t No Life To Me” is another rare Satomi-free spot, it feels more innately Deerhoofian than “Dispossessor” by its slapdash arrangement: half happy, half angry, with straightforwardly punk lyrics from Ed Rodriguez and a stuttering, surprising end.
The loose ends — a genuine James Brown tribute that works (“Model Behavior”), a flighty half cover of two verses from that Ink Spots song from Fallout 3 (“I’ve lost all ambition for worldly acclaim/ I just want to be the one you love”), Satomi’s hum (“Pastrache Come Back”) — are all magical in their own private ways, taking up space on an album’s scope but feeling infinite in the little seconds they have to perform for us. Even in those moments, I hear the magic. I listen to Satomi plucking a bass and humming to herself softly, and I can hear dimensions spreading out, songs setting up, new joys to be discovered in the spare notes. These songs all demonstrate a musical identity that’s not swayed by the wide swath of influences it consumes, but rather defined in relief, by the constant attempts to smash these influences together to find something new in their connections, a variegated mix whose end goal is to produce new colors. The magic is how Deerhoof goes further in and only branches farther out.