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The Perfect Storm

By Josh Potter

Deerhoof, City Center

WAMC Performing Arts Studio, April 18

Darn the decibel, uh, limit,” proclaimed Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier, in a perfectly awkward mid-set moment that found him stooping over diminutive vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki’s microphone stand to fill time, as guitarist Ed Rodriguez fiddled with his faltering amplifier. For all the prog-rock ballyhoo they garner, it’s at moments like this that comparisons to Yes and Rush become entirely moot. Deerhoof are a dyed-in-the-wool garage band—albeit the most highly evolved garage band in history. Aeons from the medieval ice capades of ’70s arena-rockers, the Bay Area quartet perform sans showmanship, as if in a good friend’s, er, living room. It was with self-conscious modesty that Rodriguez finally heeded Saunier’s call for a “gritty, spicy, flavorful” guitar tone and tore, with the abandon of Angus Young, into “Dummy Discards a Heart.”

While much of the band’s material arrives in odd time signatures and touches on prog themes, it never develops with the pace or narrative of Tolkien or Phillip K. Dick. Deerhoof write the kind of rock songs that make you scream “Yes!” in curt, three-minute blasts. Owing greatly to guitarist John Dieterich’s compositional prowess and guitar chops, each song flashes by like a doctored View-Master reel, where images of Snow White, the Grand Canyon, and a Count Chocula commercial rotate in breathtaking thematic continuity. Angular doesn’t even begin to describe the arrangements. As during “Milk Man” and later “+81,” guitars, bass, and detuned drums clambered for footing under Matsuzaki’s crisp, twee vocals. A sort of noise-pop, performed with classical precision—it’s what John Fahey would have written had he grown up on manga, Ritalin, and Atari.

Indeed, Matsuzaki’s lyrics (about jumping bunnies, rebounding basketballs, and beautiful nonsense like “choochoochoochoo, beep, beep”) hover over the spasmodic compositions like a Pokemon character frozen mid-attack. But while spaz-rock suggests imprecision, the band’s performance was so deviously premeditated as to border on derangement. It was late in the set, after a selection of new and older tunes, that Deerhoof finally descended into the bona fide noise-rock from which they originally were born. While the feedback was contained and palatable, Saunier’s drumming was explosive, like a cat attempting to claw its way out of a stapled grocery bag. Transitioning into another rocker to close the set, Matsuzaki handed her bass to Rodriguez and assumed a more visible position atop a front monitor. With hand gestures a la David Byrne, she conducted the band over cute hits and stops that would have made James Brown scratch his head and Yoko Ono nod hers.

With an encore of the tentatively titled “Basketball: Get Your Groove Back,” Deerhoof proved that, like every great rock band, they are far more than the sum of their influences. As fully realized as any art-rock band out there (indeed, it is their artistry that predominates), they operate so far beyond showmanship as to fuse the spectacle with the practice—something that couldn’t be said for opening act City Center. Their not-entirely-disagreeable songwriting hid behind the smiley-face directness that Deerhoof harness, and so fell to the level of B-rate karaoke.

A veritable Venn diagram of what does and does not work in post-irony rock, shows like this ought not to be as rare as they are in these parts. Believe the hype, not the hype machine.

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