Deerhoof: Mountain Moves

- In recent years Deerhoof have become one of the seemingly more unlikely bands to turn their focus towards the political. Recent records have broached topics such as American military imperialism ('Mirror Monster' from 2014's La Isla Bonita), immigration ('Exit Only' from the same album) and classism in the USA ('That Ain't No Life To Me' from last year's The Magic). On their latest album, Mountain Moves, the band have put that focus front and centre - hell, they premiered the first single on progressive news website Democracy Now. In the spirit of creating resistance through collaboration, they have recorded an album where nearly every song either features a likeminded guest or is a cover song (only five of the album's fifteen songs feature Deerhoof performing an original song without a guest). Indeed, the record is itself part of a larger project, with the band releasing the album as part of a five-disc vinyl box-set released on label Joyful Noise, with the other four records featuring releases from Deerhoof side-projects such as OneOne and Nervous Cop.

So how does a band like Deerhoof - one who has such a unique and identifiable musical signature, where they can be equally as instantly recognisable on a completely electronic album like 2012's Breakup Song as they do on 2008's guitar-focused Offend Maggie – fare when they bring new voices into their sonic fold? To be honest, the results are a little mixed. On occasion the effect is just so jarring that it jolts you out of the moment, kind of like bad CGI in a Hollywood blockbuster; it just breaks the spell that the band has worked so hard to conjure up. The best example of this is Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier's vocal turn on 'Come Down Here And Say That' – she's an iconic vocalist from a classic band, and the track is a strong Deerhoof song. However, her voice is so polished and recognisable that it sounds completely out of place on a Deerhoof record, singing their obtusely concise lyrics - we're too used to hearing Satomi Matsuzaki's inimitably deadpan voice in the centre of whatever strange concoction Deerhoof have cooked up for us. After a dozen listens to the song I still can't get past that initial feeling of something being 'not quite right'. It's the uncanny valley in musical form.

Elsewhere other guests have more luck fitting in somewhat seemlessly, such as Juana Molina, whose vocals fade into the background on opener 'Slow Motion Detonation'. Jenn Wasner of the band Wye Oak falls somewhere between Molina and Sadier on 'I Will Spite Survive' – at first I found her vocal contribution jarring, but over time the effect has lessened, to the point where I can now enjoy the song from what it is – one of Deerhoof's more straight-foward pop numbers. Elsewhere, the most out-there guest turn on the record turns out to work just fine; Awkwafina's rapping over 'Your Dystopic Future Doesn't Fear You' is so off-centre that it makes perfect sense in a Deerhoof song.

Of the three covers, 'Gracias A La Vida' seems like a misstep, with Satomi attempting a theatrical Spanish vocal, while The Staple Singers' 'Freedom Highway' kind of works, mostly getting by with it's thematic link to the rest of the album. By far the most effective cover is the version of Bob Marley's 'Small Axe' which closes the album. Deerhoof's version pairs a lone piano with Satomi's plainly performed vocal, and it's a commendably naked note to end the record on.

There's definitely some Deerhoof gold contained on Mountain Moves. After all, this is a band who have forged a reputation for combining inventiveness with consistent quality for over two decades now. 'Begin Countdown' combines a relatively subdued, atmospheric song with a massive riff and the band's renowned controlled chaos in the closing moments. 'Ay That's Me' uses drummer Greg Saunier's endless syncopations to underpin one of the more emotive songs in Deerhoof's cannon, with his high, thin vocal joining with Matsuzuki and guitarist John Dieterich's own vocal contributions to beautiful effect. In a way, it proves that Deerhoof didn't need to enlist the help of others to invoke a sense of camaraderie – you'd be hard pressed to find a band that simultaneously allows each of it's members to indulge their own unique aesthetics while still remaining such a singular unit.

You may have picked up during this review that Deerhoof are actually one of my favourite bands, and it may in fact be the case that my fandom is getting the way of me fully embracing some of the guest turns on this record. It might be that I just want a straight-up Deerhoof record (if such a thing is even possible), and that someone less invested in the band might hear this record as what it is: an endlessly restless band pushing themselves into new territory. Of course, Deerhoof wouldn't be Deerhoof if they weren't exploring new areas, and you have to commend them for that. The fact that they get so much right on Mountain Moves is surely of great credit to them.

-. Cameron Smith.

 

Album Details

Album Title: Mountain Moves
Artist: Deerhoof
Record Label: (Joyful Noise)