Review: Deerhoof’s Delightfully Wonky ‘La Isla Bonita’
Twelve albums in, the noise-pop quartet is just as spastic as ever
Deerhoof is celebrating their 20th anniversary this year — just let that sink in for a minute. Now let’s address the ageist elephant in the room: Are they, as James Murphy once so bluntly put it, losing their edge? The short answer is, no. Just no. Don’t let Deerhoof’s years deter you; just because Deerhoof the Band has nearly reached legal drinking age (the members’ actual ages are tricky to pin down, but they are decidedly older than your average noise-pop collective) doesn’t mean that their wacked-out constructions won’t still get their die-hard fans to that dizzy, double-vision place.
Given the San Francisco project’s prolific output, it would be easy to shrug off La Isla Bonita, a title that salsa dances in the footsteps of Madonna’s Latin-inspired True Blue anthem, which, according to super-Madge fan (and lead vocalist) Satomi Matsuzaki, is intentional. All Queen of Pop references aside, no one would hold it against you for assuming that La Isla Bonita is presumably destined for deep-cut status. But don’t get cold feet on the warm and inviting LP: This 10-song effort is tantamount to a maraschino cherry bomb placed atop a smashed-together sundae. Though it fails to be as “PANDA-PANDA-PANDA beep beep” as the albums that first put Deerhoof on the map (think 1999’s Holdypaws, 2003’s Apple O’, and 2004’s Milk Man), La Isla Bonita achieves a certain balance that most successful long-term relationships have — comfort in the familiar yet a fundamental hunger for adventure.
Each song, much like their entire catalog, unfolds like one happy accident after the other. In fact, these songs are literally one happy accident after the other: With Godmode Records head Nick Sylvester on the production boards, the band reportedly recorded each track in guitarist Ed Rodriguez’s Portland basement without giving much thought to such pesky technical hang-ups like mic placement or staying in tune. With a few slowed-down exceptions, the result is another schitzo-slapstick-gaga-tee-hee-bonkers Deerhoof album packed with silly-willy lyrics, frenzied melodies, and famously skittish drumming.
Actually, pardon our use of the word “another” — we don’t mean to give the impression that they’re repeating themselves. Deerhoof, generally speaking, go out of their way never to craft the same album twice and here they’ve tightened up the “meow-meow-meow” bananas lyrics from their earlier work (see: Holdypaws’ “Satan”), utilized the genre-hopping minimalism from 2012’s Breakup Song, and, with Sylvester’s help, built a noticeably tighter, cohesive pop record.
To that end, Deerhoof confidently acknowledges their oddball, left-of-center history on La Isla Bonita with a super-fun yet poignant mess of hooky songs. Matsuzaki’s cartoony vocals are at the peak of their high-pitched nonsensicalness on the record’s beat-filled opener, “Paradise Girls,” in which she chirps about “girls who will play the bass guitar.” Meanwhile, aggro single “Exit Only” wackily comments on the States’ empty “American Dream” promises: “You enter U.S.A. / Welcome to speech of freedom / You enter U.S.A. / Welcome to speech of freedom / Thank you for coming, get out now.”
Even the full-length’s sleepier moments offer a break from its breakneck speed and succeed in balancing out an otherwise dizzying record. Rolling in with atmospheric guitars — equivalent to an Explosions in the Sky-scraping post-rock symphony — “Mirror Monster” features Matsuzaki lovingly harmonizing with Rodriguez and guitarist John Dieterich, “Big House Waltz” edges into drone territory, and the album’s final song, “Oh Bummer,” has an echoing sonic quality that toe-dips into the psychedelic. Now the caveat: Though they are beautifully executed, this series of slow-moving songs might be too long of a lullaby for any speed-snorting punks out there who “do it harder, faster, [and] with more love, baby.”
With its frequent toned-down diversions from their trademark cutesy pop-meets-face-melting-metal insanity, the Bay Area’s artiest art punks’ latest may not satisfy every Deerhoof obsessive. The band’s two-decade capper, which simultaneously looks back to the group’s best years and forward to whatever mission lies ahead, should be recognized as a pillar (island?) of their career. We’d like two window seats to La Isla Bonita, please.