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Review: Deerhoof’s Mountain Moves Is a Charming But Uneven Protest Album

Deerhoof’s protest record” is an intriguing concept on paper. Over nearly two decades, the Bay Area quartet has proven itself as a singularly able and inventive rock band. Their catalog veers from harsh noise to anthemic power-pop, primitive bashing to dazzling virtuosity, sweaty rock’n’roll vérité to immaculate studio wonkery. The same playfully deconstructive streak that drives them to these experiments also provides them with an unwavering identity through all the left turns: You’ll rarely find a fist-pumping power chord on a Deerhoof record without a cheeky schoolyard-chant melody to undercut it, or a simple driving backbeat when a roaring waterfall of drums would work just as well. These tendencies–either charming or cloying, depending on your perspective–are at odds with the urgency and directness of expression that we generally expect of political rock music. What would it sound like if this band of merry pranksters turned away from whimsy and toward ardor?

On Mountain Moves, they still sound like Deerhoof. The band explicitly pitched its 14th album as a political statement, announcing its release with a statement that nam-echecked the Women’s March and premiering its first single via the long-running leftist news outlet Democracy Now! But they wisely avoided a self-serious makeover, opting instead to lean into their childlike side while railing against all manner of oppressors. For the first time, they also invited a group of likeminded collaborators to contribute to vocals and instrumentation, including Juana Molina, Laetitia Sadier of Stereoloab, Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, and the celebrated avant garde saxophonist Matana Roberts.

The resulting album is bright and inviting, with a crispness of sound and arrangement, like a major-key counterpart to the very good 2011 album Deerhoof vs. Evil. It contains a few solid gems–and, in “Con Sordino” and the Wasner-featuring “I Will Spite Survive,” two songs that could slot into a Deerhoof’s greatest hits playlist. But as with the three uneven albums they’ve made since vs. Evil, on Mountain Moves, Deerhoof are at once restrained and stretched thin, dabbling in all of the sounds they’ve inhabited in the past but occasionally lacking the sense of abandon that fuels their best albums and their still-invigorating live show.

“I Will Spite Survive” functions as a kind of mission statement, a compact and exuberant piece of guitar pop about the political power of simply existing when there are powerful people who would rather see you gone. Under the Donald Trump administration, the message is especially potent coming from Deerhoof bassist and singer Satomi Matsuzaki, a Japanese-American immigrant. Wasner provides the chorus, and like many of the outsiders, she takes a cue from Matsuzaki’s distinctive vocal style, favoring ostinatos that derive power from simplicity and repetition. These conscientious contributions from provide a surprising degree of consistency to an album with a guest list that might otherwise feel overstuffed. The lone exception is the viral New York City rapper Awkwafina, who awkwardly Rages Against the Machine on the intro of the otherwise sublimely silky “Your Dystopian Creation Doesn’t Fear You.”

Mountain Moves is roughly split between the aforementioned poppy songs and more outré material, and it’s with the stranger stuff that the album starts to get a little streaky. On the good side, there’s the spacey disco-funk of “Palace of the Governors” and “Begin Countdown.” Describing Deerhoof songs frequently forces you to invent delirious fictional bands to compare them to; the latter of these two sounds like the Meters as covered by an ensemble of Teletubbies. On a handful of songs that litter the album’s second half, however–”Sea Moves,” “Singalong Junk,” “Kokoye”–the band searches at its borders for a new sound to bring back and doesn’t find anything very interesting.

The album is also dotted with cover songs, one of which hints at the limits of Deerhoof’s approach, and another at the possibilities. The first is the Staple Singers’ classic “Freedom Highway.” The original is a gritty, hard-charging civil rights anthem, full of pain as well as hope. Given the slight candy coating inherent to their style, Deerhoof can’t help but make their interpretation sound a little like parody, no matter how earnestly they surely believe in the song’s sentiment. The second is an even more unexpected selection: “Small Axe,” an album cut from the thick of Bob Marley’s midcareer roots-reggae period. Deerhoof strip the song of its humid atmosphere and one-drop groove, substituting a spare solo piano arrangement instead. (Incidentally, the choice of instrumentation reveals a surprising compositional similarity to Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.”) Matsuzaki sings Marley’s lines with simple conviction, extending his message of universal struggle until it becomes almost otherworldly.

True to its title, Mountain Moves is largely about optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges and detractors who say change will never come. This refusal to capitulate to dread or joyless pragmatism makes it an easy album to love, despite its flaws. Who says an ecstatic revolution against the status quo is impossible? Who says a rock band can’t move mountains?