Albums of the Decade #4: The Runners Four by Deerhoof

July 16, 2009

There seems to be a certain pattern with recorded music that I’ve listened to over the past 10 years.

Some records make sense right away – they instantly take hold of your ears but often fade in significance quickly over time.

Others completely baffle initially but eventually, with an iPod on shuffle or a feeling of “I MUST understand this album somehow”, the record blossoms.

It’s a very satisfying feeling – like the sound of a pebble thrown into a pond or the reassuring click of a lock. At this point the record becomes like a novel, something deeper you can delve into, and on each return visit reveal some new treasure that makes my relationship to that record deeper.

The chaotic squelching of Deerhoof is certainly one of the more baffling aspects of their music- but they handle songwriting with what could almost be called “pop” sensibilities – matching the whirling drums and squealing guitars with simple “stuck-in-your-head” sugary riffs.

Guitarist John Dietrich described this apparent paradox well in a recent interview for State “On the surface, it doesn’t make any sense. We’re attempting to create something very specific together but which also requires the moment to moment ability of the people in the band to react to whatever’s happening. In reality, I don’t think that it’s the improvisation itself that always is what is important. It’s the feeling that anything can happen that’s important.

It’s that feeling of “anything can happen” that I look for in any kind of music. One that’s both chaotic and yet manages to retain some semblance of structure – it’s the edge of something, where music is it’s most luminous, vibrant and at its most human.

And this feeling is borne out throughout this record (and, as it turns out, on stage too)

One of the tracks, “Wrong Time Capsule” opens with an almost Hendrix-esque riff, which belies the guitar squleching to come. But the middle section is beautiful beyond description, with Satomi softly singing “Skip the wave, syncopate, forwards-backwards” – seemingly singing about the very paradox the band represent.

Subsequent song, “Spirit Ditties of No Tone”, opens with a Tropacalia-esque groove morphing into a piercing guitar ostinato. There are moments, as there are throughout this record, where the whole song seems to careen toward a cliff but is somehow saved at the last moment – or as in the case of this track – simply drift off into 90 secs of oblivion.

“Scream Team” throws the listener back into a simple rocker but soon decends into an off time vocal-matched-with-guitar-riff bender.

It’s sequences like this throughout the 20 tracks of “The Runners Four” that make Deerhoof such an exciting band – and this record their best. It’s not that it’s perfect, by any means. But after many, many listens you still feel that anything could happen.

Started in March, my Albums of the Decade series was based on there being 10 months left in the 10th year of the decade. Each month I look at an album that, for me, has been a musical highlight of the last 10 years. Other Entries:

#1 – You Forgot It In People by Broken Social Scene

#2 – Thee More Shallow by More Deep Cuts

#3 – Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane – Live at Carnegie Hall