by Kate Silver
“Words at Work” (1968; Amsco) is the literary equivalent of “Learn to Play Guitar with 8 Chords,” a preparatory workbook with priceless vocabulary tips and etymologies of the English language (the origin of "Assassin" is A drinker of Hashish, did you know that?) For instance, "The names of the different species of fishes have not only a piscatorial value, but a colloquial significance: Riders on the crowded underground trains have been humorously called subway sardines." As the old saw goes, give a man a fish … you know the rest. Likewise, give San Francisco art-punks Deerhoof eight chords, and they’ll forever reinvent the pop song.
Like my indispensable dollar-bought tome, the quartet’s
sixth proper release, Milk Man (Kill Rock Stars/5RC), is full of tiny revelations.
Vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki toys with individual words like inanimate objects.
She sounds them out with childlike inquisitiveness, and fashions together Non
Sequiturs like tinkertoys. Deerhoof isn’t a literary band, but they’ve
constructed a unique vocabulary from a series of solitary riffs, easily tossed
off and exchanged for new ones. Their verbiage stems from avant-jazzmen like
the Bang on a Can Allstars, pastiche pattern-makers The Residents and even The
Kinks’ pop sensibility is evident; familiar garbled guitar feeds resonate
like Dave Davies’ trusty amplifier. In fact, Deerhoof can and will bang
on just about anything—a dusty organ or cowbell—creating a racket
ever closer or further away from the traditional pop median.
"We've been trying
and trying to make music that anybody would like," remarks guitarist Chris
Cohen, via e-mail. "Believe it or not, even after the first few albums
there were those who said it was too polished. It really depends on your definition
of pop. I like pop music like Burt Bacharach, where the melodies have these
huge leaps in pitch and the rhythm is always changing and the guitar doesn't
really sound like a guitar and the chord changes are totally unpredictable,
and people all agree that that's pop. So then it seems to me that it's a matter
of what you can get away with." In this case, the "Milk Man"
could get away with murder. On the organ-driven "Giga Dance," Matsuzaki
meanders, "Mind the steps / Steal his eyes / Under pale dim lights."
"Dog on the Sidewalk" allows for a syncopated rat-tat-tat of drumming
while the lyricism is confined to the couplet: "Dog on the sidewalk I saw
/ Wan wan kun ga poko poko pon pon pon." Still, with respect for the listener,
the band’s childlike whimsy rarely oversteps their seasoned prowess as
Adds Cohen, "Most people really dig music that's complex
like that as long as it's done with their enjoyment in mind and not just for
the sake of being wacky. I don't think Deerhoof has tried to get away with less
over the years, we've just tried to make it more enjoyable to listen to. We've
had more time over the years to try and understand what we like to hear in music
and we try to just do that."
If you’re still confused, you’re not alone. Deerhoof’s
concepts are their raison d’être, the elements that make their music,
almost deceptively simple, such a challenge and a thrill to pick through. Adds
Cohen, "The concept isn't something we want to pin down or spell out for
everybody. We worked a long time on it, making it confusing but hopefully irresistible
and we'd like it if it just gnawed away at people and they couldn't go on."
Like Matsuzaki’s poker-faced introduction, "Milk Man": "Milk
Man sleeps on the roof at noon / Bananana [sic.] stabbed to the arms / Weird
man / Ooh La La." Whaaa? "We love it when things do that to us,"
Cohen says. "For example this happens to Greg [Saunier, drummer]. He will
not let up about that movie ‘Eyes Wide Shut.’ It drives me crazy
but it's really fun for him and we all discuss it with him for hours on end.
These obsessions first require that something be so good that you want to understand,
though, and that's the only hard part. I mean, being confusing is easy. So we
work very hard on everything we do, in order to provide the set-up, and then
we just try to turn the screws.
Deerhoof plays on Thu., April 29, at the Triple Rock
Social Club. With 54-71 and Sicbay. 6 p.m. $8. All Ages. 629 Cedar Ave. S.,
You can find out more about Deerhoof on their official website.
Click to download an mp3 of Deerhoofs’ song Sealed With a Kiss.