Graded on a Curve: Deerhoof,
Actually, You Can

With Actually, You Can, the sustained prolificacy of the esteemed San Francisco four-piece Deerhoof continues. It’s a succinct album that finds them in typically lithe, muscular form across nine tracks that’re intended to be representative of their thunderous capabilities as a live unit. As ever, the intricacy is inviting as they mingle elements of edgy prog rock, punk at its most ambitious, and the catchiness of (art-)pop. Unsurprisingly, the vinyl has been delayed until January of 2022, but the CD, cassette and digital are available October 22 through Joyful Noise Recordings.

I feel safe in calling 2020 an unpleasant and unpredictable year, but it proved to be quite a productive one for bassist-vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki, drummer-vocalist Greg Saunier, guitarist Ed Rodriguez, and guitarist John Dieterich, the four individuals who comprise Deerhoof. To elaborate, they released Future Teenage Cave Artists on multiple formats in May and followed it up with the digital-only stream of covers Love Lore in September.

In between, as a benefit for Black Lives Matter, they issued the digital-only To Be Surrounded by Beautiful, Curious, Breathing, Laughing Flesh Is Enough (title courtesy of Walt Whitman), a live set from the 2018 Winter Jazzfest held at Le Poisson Rouge, that on its final five tracks featured the trumpet of Wadada Leo Smith.

Soaking up that show, one can easily imagine that it would be a frustrating, if not outright stifling, for an outfit of Deerhoof’s vision and sheer ensemble heft to be separated for so long. Building music through the sharing of files can be a remedy (and was in fact part of their creative practice pre-pandemic), but the reality that’s never divorced from Deerhoof in any recorded context is that they are, at core, a working band.

As detailed by Sadie Dupuis (Quilty, Speedy Ortiz, Sad13) in her essay accompanying Actually, You Can’s release, it was Matsuzaki who redirected the increasingly layered quality of the album’s demos and insisted that the songs should communicate the essence of a Deerhoof live performance. To quote Matsuzaki: “This album needs to be two guitars, bass, drums, period, that’s it.”

And those are the essential ingredients for Actually, You Can, along with the crucial additive of Matsuzaki’s voice, which is heard alone at the start of album opener “Be Unbarred, O Ye Gates of Hell.” As the instrumentation kicks in, there are bursts of punkish velocity amid angular, almost carnivalesque guitar threads and the supple anchor of the largest bass this side of Mike Watt.

And similar to Watt, who has helmed a concept album inspired by Hieronymus Bosch (that’d be Hyphenated-man from 2010), “Be Unbarred, O Ye Gates of Hell” possesses a wide breadth of influence, specifically a Handel aria, a Maya Angelou poem and a Catholic homily, info passed on here just so it’s clear that Deerhoof aren’t merely flaunting their skills as a collective.

Still, the second track “Department of Corrections” is a display of pure form as rich in thud-throb-blare as it is pop-inspired, with Matsuzaki’s vocals gliding sweetly atop. Next, “We Grew, and We Are Astonished” largely emphasizes a melodic sensibility (guitar and vocals) over the band’s bruising elasticity, though Saunier’s drums are still huge in the equation. And the song’s brief lyrical stanza concludes with the intriguing question, “are you ready to go straight to video?”

The influences/ inspirations on “Be Unbarred, O Ye Gates of Hell” related above aren’t easy to discern even after getting hip to their existence, but in “Scarcity Is Manufactured,” the connection to “La Bamba” is tangible in one of the album’s standouts, especially as it fleetingly sounds like the band’s ramping up a math-rock version of Booker T & the MG’s “Soul Limbo” that never materializes.

Blending touches of indie rock with avant-funk and nodding toward post-rock, “Ancient Mysteries, Described” showcases Deerhoof’s undiminished ability at songcraft, while “Plant Thief” is a hard-charging galloper loaded with thick bass and guitars that chime, sting-stab and then dish out some almost video game-like spazz noodle.

“Our Philosophy Is Fiction” takes it down a few notches as the front half’s near-trad rock structure (complete with a few “cinematic” guitar flourishes) serves as a prelude for a stream of guitar atmospherics a la Sonic Youth, this excursion resolving itself pretty quickly, though it’s not hard to visualize them stretching out matters in performance.

In keeping with Matsuzaki’s demand, everything on Actually, You Can registers as built for maximum effectiveness on the live stage, “Epic Love Poems” delivering a nasty groove that’s destined to both pulverize club audiences and ensnare outdoor festival crowds, especially with its dub-like bass action (amid subtle fluctuations in tempo).

“Divine Comedy” begins with a smattering of catchy riff clusters (including a passage that’s downright funky) but then gradually turns toward geometrical patterns as the rhythmic engine remains well-calibrated throughout. It concludes Actually, You Can, which offers Deerhoof at the near top of their game.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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