Deerhoof – Milk Man

Milk Man

As unlikely as any band in recent memory to transcend outsider status and garner glowing reviews from around the globe, Deerhoof may be about to enter uncharted territory for such a steadfastly and delightfully weird band. Completely throwing out the indie-rock rulebook, with the lead vocalist writing and singing in fractured English and the arrangements in a constant state of simultaneous evolution and disintegration, the band has moved along its artistic progression in fits and starts, slowly gravitating toward a more cohesive identity. Still, that these musicians have been able to converge the most improbable summit of high-concept art and pop accessibility – splitting the difference between noise and melody, delirious immediacy and off-putting abrasiveness – has to be considered one of the most implausible developments of early 21st century indie rock. And now, quite surprisingly, they’re being rewarded for it. Sure, they’re not likely to be on the cover of Rolling Stone any time soon nor achieve pop stardom on a J. Lo level, but don’t doubt that this is their moment. And no band since Sonic Youth has been more capable of making otherwise difficult or esoteric art seem like a mass consumer product.
Early rumors of this album reported that it was a bit of a concession, the band’s first overt stab at true pop convention. Still, that seems to fit the script of the moment more than reality, as even a quick listen to Milk Man will reveal it to be entirely within the band’s previous oeuvre, with more hooks, bizarre narratives, and quirk-a-minute arrangements. True, the melodies are immediate – maybe more so than on previous releases – but in doing so Deerhoof has hardly ratcheted down on idiosyncratic oddness. In fact, if anything, the band is just getting a bit more refined in isolating and amplifying the strongest qualities in the mix, creating an album slightly more focused but no less challenging.
Ostensibly a morality play featuring a milkman who leads children to his heavenward hideaway to forever ensnare them, their post-modern Pan is still undeniably a Deerhoof character. The title track starts the proceedings off with a blast of supercharged guitars and vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki introducing her bizarre antagonist, here making his first appeal amidst a shifting sonic backdrop, one minute a soft bedding of crosshatched electric guitar picking and single piano notes, the next huge guitar hooks and gloriously spiraling keyboards. And the hooks never abate from there, with the unhinged guitar solos and anthemic chorus of “Milking” and the piercingly shrill piano notes and dreamy ether of “Song of Sorn” ranking among their most imaginatively distinguished moments. To a certain degree, a slightly more prog-ish spirit runs through these tracks, as none tally the attention-challenged briefness found on previous releases, and some of the spazzy instrumentals rank as standouts in the set.
Still, no matter how much Milk Man is generally in keeping with its predecessors structurally, the band shows evidence of introducing even more textural variation into their mix. Taking bubbling looped beats and matching them with strangely solemn keyboard strikes of “Desaparecere” – totally sung in Spanish, with mentions of an “occult soup” and a curious “dance for one person” – reinterprets Kid A-era Radiohead for the Hello Kitty generation. Similarly, “Dog on the Sidewalk” a lullaby of sparking and gurgling electronics that incorporates enough distorted blips and abstractions to ensure that the band still has quite a few concessions to make before they become radio fodder. Unexpectedly reverent, in both tone and melody, the closing “New Sneakers” ends the album with solemn church organ and images of running through a field of fruit trees.
Like the album cover, Deerhoof embodies the perfect juxtaposition of innocent lovability and esoteric gore, using the sweetest fruit to wound. And Milk Man is representative of just about everything the band does best: the melodies soar, bend, and crunch; the verse seems interminably driven by its own internal logic; and the band’s members still play with a near-telepathic singularity of thought. In the end, whether or not the band may be playing on the edges of conventionality is hardly relevant; the strengths of the music are as rooted in the pop aesthetic as they are the avant-garde, and we can hardly begrudge the band’s tinkering with the formula in such characteristic ways. As good as it is, though, one gets the impression that Deerhoof is the rare band that deserves every bit of praise it gets but has yet to even dream its most potent opus.