In my perhaps naïve and youthfully transgressive opinion, I feel that if your band is able to elicit knee-jerk grimaces of disgust and confusion from the general public, you’re probably doing something very right. After all, isn’t it better to garner strong reactions both positive and negative than lukewarm ones or, worse, nonexistent ones? Atlanta quintet Deerhunter’s MySpace page is filled with various unfavorable testimonials from self-proclaimed 'open-minded indie music fans' who came across the band on their tour with The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. One angry young lad even threatened to sabotage any attempts the band makes to play his hometown. A reaction that appalled, just over music?
The conundrum here, with such offensive and reactionary bile heaved toward Deerhunter, is that for all the band’s blatantly off-putting quirks (the fixation on the most experimental personalities of the Krautrock spectrum, leader Bradford Cox’s sickly appearance, a thirst for producing rich ambient fog to cloud their songs), they’re nevertheless pretty damn easy to love. No more so than on their second full-length, the troubled Cryptograms, where Deerhunter, like fellow daring-yet-approachable rabble-rousers such as Deerhoof and Animal Collective, could be the catalyst for the creation of a more diverse and venturesome independent musical landscape. The disturbing and disappointing possible outcome, though, is that if the supposedly ahead-of-the-curve cardigan set can’t grasp something as enjoyably imaginative as Deerhunter, well, then maybe ‘indie’ is now just a musical figment; face it, ‘indie rock’ has become about as relevant and meaningful as punk, emo, and any other underground beacon of auditory creativity that has been exploited and destroyed by a mixture of corporate greed and conflicted, fickle fans.
Here’s one vote for Cryptograms becoming the next Runners Four. Apparently recorded in the midst of a tumultuous period for the young band, which almost tragically resulted in their dissolution, one has to be thankful not only that they were able to keep their ambitions in check, but that they’ve produced a full-length this surprisingly assured and unremitting. And despite the noticeable lack of the expected anguish, there is a sense of medicated escape that pervades Cryptograms, like a Xanax-induced, numbing calm in the face of grave tragedy.
Unlike the band’s first effort (unofficially known as Turn It Up Faggot, a co-option of one of the many insults hurled at the band throughout their existence), Cryptograms has less of the post-punk vigor and more of the avant calm that pervaded the group’s earlier attempts at dismantling the revivalist paradigm. The record’s title track is perhaps the most in-tune with Faggot’s art-fucked dance-slabs like “Death Drag,” but now the band have finally utilized their live show’s sense of tape and effects-laden euphoria with the manic energy only a spirited group of pre-cynicism youngsters could execute. Elsewhere, despite the more grounded and, dare I say, ‘mature’ battle-plan, Deerhunter avoid a compromise of the un-recorded glory so many word-of-mouth scribes have been going on about for the past year or so. Whether through gorgeous sweeps of formless overcast like “White Ink,” or “Lake Somerset”’s Mark Stewart-led Faust fantasy, Cryptograms will either elicit a re-appreciation of pop in numerous bitter misanthropes or completely acid-fry the unsuspecting songwriters who were already predisposed to these strange sounds they’d been unknowingly waiting to hear.
The second half of the album, recorded after the mini-suite of tracks one through seven, arguably creates some of the best psych-crazed pop since Jason Pierce and Julian Cope became isolated loners. “Spring Hall Convert” is simply near-gorgeous and, along with “Heatherwood,” works in soliciting melancholy and wonderment with nary a forced emotion or selfish concern over their image. Not to mention how pleasing it is to have a song like “Strange Lights,” which sounds like The Stone Roses in ’89 ditching house for Eno’s Warm Jets or Tiger Mountain.
Had Deerhunter packed it in following this record’s aborted first stab it would have been a grave shame; to see a promising, first-rate band leave behind such a minuscule discography, with the obnoxious and misguided taunts of immature and rude drones force-feeding everyone their told-you-sos. Maybe Deerhunter won’t ever be able to reach the fanbase they should by all rights have, or maybe, like so many of the best musicians, they will face scorn and disdain until we all realize what we’ve been taking for granted. At least if Deerhunter decide to pack it in now, they’ll have this near-masterpiece to sit by the side of their excellent debut. But here’s hoping that they continue to perplex, offend, and amaze much, much longer.
1. Intro2. Cryptograms3. White Ink4. Lake Somerset5. Providence6. Octet7. Red Ink8. Spring Hall Convert9. Strange Lights10. Hazel St.11. Tape Hiss Orchid12. Heatherwood