“My angles are many.
My sides are not few.
I’m the Dodecahedron.
Who are you?”
On the surface, The Magic, the latest LP from San Francisco rock and noise pop band, Deerhoof, comes across as a collection of different voices and ideas that have been mistakenly and haphazardly thrown together. In actuality, this record is more like the previously referenced Dodecahedron (from Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth): a single, multifaceted being that changes its face at an instant, and entirely without warning.
Sudden change is a major theme of The Magic. The record’s aim seems to be to draw constant apprehension from the listener, whilst drowning them in an unceasing supply of fun. It’s an oddly inspired fusion of disparate sensations, which left me constantly on edge because I was trying to anticipate the next change, while at the same time, desperately resisting the urge to head-bang, violently, on the bus in front of twenty strangers. For the most part, major stylistic changes occur from track to track, with each new song scratching a different band member’s compositional itch. There are however tracks, that contain their own microcosmic style changes. The album’s opening tune, ‘The Devil and His Anarchic Surrealist Retinue’ (a great song title!) has three distinct sections marked by changes in tonality, texture and timing that give the song a narrative progression that is hard to discern from the lyrics, as many of the vocal performances on The Magic are in different languages, or otherwise fairly indistinct.
One of the things I love about Deerhoof’s music is their unique use of vocals. Unlike other bands, the vocals are not the centre of attention on most of their songs. For the most part, the voice is treated as just another instrument, and is blended into the mix as if it were so. Like every other instrument played by the band, the voice has its role and is frequently given a chance to shine and stand out, but more often than not, ego is left at the door and the vocalists become just another part of the ensemble. In ‘Kafe Mania!’, the vocals are almost completely out of focus, which allows the song to be centred around the instrumentalists, highlighting instead, a particularly catchy, and heavy guitar riff as well as the exceedingly effective use of stops. Conversely, on the unsettling cover of The Ink Spots’ ‘I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire’, the instrumentation, whilst being a particularly eerie interpretation of the original song, mostly fades into the background beneath Satomi Matsuzaki’s quivering, yet piercing vocal line.
Often, songs on The Magic have somewhat of a delayed kick-off, harmonically. Melody lines will suggest a direction in which the music will travel, and whilst it will ultimately arrive there, that arrival will be frequently delayed, thus creating palpable tension and a much more satisfying resolution when it eventually comes. ‘Criminals of the Dream’ and ‘Learning to Apologize Effectively’ are two key examples where the harmonic resolution one expects comes only at the end of the second or third time the main vocal melody is heard. This all contributes to the running theme of change and apprehension on The Magic, a theme that is perpetuated by the way songs start and finish. The song ‘Model Behaviour’ begins with a short, solo vocal line, which leads into a loud, brash and heavily accompanied rock song. This however, makes it all the more unsettling when later, on the track ‘Patrasche Come Back’, one expects the sparsely accompanied, lo-fi vocals to develop into a similar song. In fact, this song doesn’t develop, but rather leaves the listener with a short, unremarkable sonic experiment, and the only substantially disappointing entry on the record.
The album does however make excellent use of sudden stops. One particularly brilliant example of this is on the album’s lead single, ‘Plastic Thrills’, which also happens to be the catchiest track presented here. As the song begins to draw to a close, the lead guitarist begins what has the potential to be a great guitar solo, when, after less than ten seconds, the track cuts to silence. What is effective about this is that the listener is given next to no time to process the sudden withholding of visceral enjoyment, before the record launches into the next track, resulting in a state of somewhat gratifying perplexity.
Deerhoof, on this latest effort, give no quarter. The Magic is breathless and relentless, shifting gears just as you being to adapt to each inspired style change. Whilst one or two of the record’s deeper cuts feel a little redundant (‘Patrasche Come Back’ feels almost counter productive as it provides the brief respite that the rest of the album seems to be trying so hard to withhold), The Magic is successful in relating Deerhoof’s most feverish and urgent creative expressions to date in a manner that is entirely full of joy.