We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Over the years, Satomi Matsuzaki has perfected a particular kind of writing: sparse, mysterious, and not nearly as cute as her cooing delivery might make you think. But Deerhoof’s vocalist/bassist more frequently grabs the attention of critics for her voice: It’s “sweet and childlike.” It’s “tiny [and] bird-like.” It’s, worst of all, “the perfect accompaniment to the instruments.” True, the San Francisco quartet has produced some serious musical highs: the honey-nutty tunefulness of “Flower,” from 2003’s Apple O’, say, or the bubbly swagger of “Holy Night Fever,” from the band’s 2002 breakthrough, Reveille. But it could all sound a bit too, well, sweet and childlike, as if the other members of the band had no idea that their singer could be anything else. Too many songs were built around a recorder’s peep or a toy piano’s plink. The 20 tracks on Deerhoof’s latest, The Runners Four, amount to a series of wistful and warped short stories—and this time, Matsuzaki’s bandmates have finally crafted music to fit. In just a few lines, “Twin Killers” goes pulp-poetic, describing “tricky two heads deceivers.” “Midnight Bicycle Mystery” sketches a nightmare stalking: “I heard the footstepping sounds come after me/Turning the corner, I see no one/Silence/The turner/The runner.” In “Running Thoughts,” we hear the story of “the Runners Four/Always slipping through the back door/When they come ashore.” In each case, where something soft and cartoonish might have been before, the band has put in a crunchy guitar melody or a sudden burst of harmony. The album reportedly took the band six months to record—with much hair-pulling and several rewrites in the process—and it shows, both in a dedication to actually figuring out how sound can help tell a story and in the longer song lengths. Deerhoof is still all over the place musically, but no more are good ideas used up in a minute. No more do grooves fall apart just as they get going. It’s as if the Teletubbies grew beards, got into existentialism, and decided to cover the White Album. “Spy on You” pairs Matsuzaki’s oddly joyful declaration of “Under investigation/I have your information!” with a suitably slinky guitar riff. “Odyssey,” Deerhoof’s relatively subdued entry in the indie-pirate-fantasy stakes, finds a male voice singing high above a contemplative strum: “How long will we last?/Out on the sea.” Suddenly, even the simplest lines seem to have deeper, shadier meanings. The longing ones get psych-pop swirl (“O’Malley, Former Underdog”). The creepy ones get spaghetti-Western guitar flourishes (“After Me the Deluge”). The mystical ones get bits of sparkly squawk and crusty feedback (“Siriustar”). Everything on The Runners Four is in its rightful place, even when Matsuzaki’s last words are buried under a blanket of fuzz: “Ring a bell for joy/Enjoy/Singing for the ending.” —Jason Cherkis