Ben Butler and Mousepad
January 28, 2011
Better than: San Jose tourist attractions.
To be sure, the term "mid-career art-rockers" -- one that fits sometime Bay Area indie heroes Deerhoof like a permanently glued beanie to the head -- is a rarity. Sixteen years is a long time for a band to resist the temptations of accessibility and commercially viable song structures. The band's latest album, Deerhoof Vs. Evil -- for which the band held an album-release concert Friday night at Great American Music Hall -- is confirmation that Deerhoof's four members have few plans for pursuing a musical path without art at its heart. In other words, they are still very, very weird.
Just as stairways and hallways shrivel into abrupt endings and myriad colors and materials are arranged with no thought for functionality, Deerhoof's architecture is equally nonsensical: riffs are scattered and fleeting; melodies are alien to their juxtaposition; narrative is deferred; identity is plural. But in all that sonic chaos lies moments of unchecked beauty, no matter how in-their-own-world Deerhoof's four pieces seem.
Satomi Matsuzaki, Deerhoof's mystical sprite of a lead singer and bassist, came onstage in formal attire, glowing in a pink Quincinera-esque gown and bedazzled eye make-up. She's lost little of her charm since she first joined the band in 1996 as a musical novice and native of Japan. Her accent remains thick, but endearingly so (her "thank yous" after each song are a faithful reminder). Her coy, playful lyricism contrasts starkly to just about every element of the band's sonic oeuvre. She dances, too -- like a Kindergarten-teaching cheerleader.
Of the new material dutifully exhibitioned, "Super Duper Rescue Heads!" won the audience over most convincingly. Its sparkling intro is as close to a pop sensibility as the band gets on Deerhoof Vs. Evil, thanks to a dancing, starry keyboard riff and a heavy, thumping bass. Of course, the melody is quickly forfeited in favor of idiosyncratic turns of scrap sound. It's a reminder that bands with the most twisted musical vantage points often have the most spirited takes on pop traditions.
But back to that twisted vantage point we were talking about. Another new track, "The Merry Barracks," worked helter-skelter drums with an equally percussive distorted guitar chord. Add another scratching guitar riff and a dreaming refrain or two, and voila -- it was another savory oddity.
Unsurprisingly, the (sort of) leader of this band operates on a level detatched from normal human existence, at least while onstage. Drummer/occasional vocalist Greg Saunier addressed the crowd multiple times, assuming (or possibly maintaining) a robotic voice to thank us for coming out, albeit in a very roundabout, humorous way. Think Dana Carvey's Garth as a "Scooby Doo" character. Later, in between encores, Saunier revealed the Deerhoof heart: "This is but Day 2 in our eight-month trek around the world, and audience-wise I don't see how it will be anything but downhill from here."
Other old favorites such as "Milk Man" and set opener "Dummy Discards a Heart" (with the sublimely simplistic refrain: "Sing to the East / Sing to the West / Sing to the one you love the best") made similar, daringly sentimental impressions, and also appealed to the widest segment of this devoted Deerhoof crowd.
Opener Ben Butler and Mousepad came to us physically from Scotland and Germany, but ideologically the duo hails from the synth-funk houses of the '80s. They introduced themselves by saying "it's ok to dance," but not many did.