A lot of indie rock is built around the premise that big, sexy riffs aren’t to be trusted. That’s an honorable enough MO for the music biz, in which bigness and sexiness are both all too plentiful. But even in indiedom, chops are chops—and like it or not, Deerhoof has chops. It’s just that instead of thrusting toward rock ’n’ roll ecstasy, the San Francisco foursome usually wrestles its beefiest ideas into sexless submission.

Last year’s superhyped Apple O’ is a case in point: Although it was the most focused record yet of Deerhoof’s decadelong career, it could’ve rocked a lot harder. For every exhilarating monster-mash groove (“Dummy Discards a Heart,” “Flower”), there was a cracked-up journey into sound (“Sealed With a Kiss”) or an unsettling near-lullaby (“Apple Bomb”). The band has been embracing such contrasts for years, but the nonrock stuff almost always wins in the end. It did on Apple O’, almost disappointingly so: The second half of the disc seemed to stumble away, pleased with its own addled head space. Sure, that extended denouement was sometimes sublime, but it also needed a bit of the unbridled power found elsewhere on the album.

So for Milk Man, Deerhoof did the only logical thing it could to stay true to its eggheady ideals: It got rid of even more riffage and made a topsy-turvy album full of weird, childlike visions of a half-baked fantasy kingdom. Throughout the new disc, the guitars are kept in check and any allusions to cock rock seem accidental. But here’s the problem for anybody who thinks that Deerhoof should be embracing its more primitive urges: Milk Man is a tighter, smarter, and more completely realized record than Apple O’. Deerhoof hasn’t gotten better at rockin’; it’s gotten better at being Deerhoof.

That means a couple of things: When songs sound ready to explode like something from Who’s Next, they make hard left turns. The title track, for example, sets up bass/guitar interplay that threatens to build into something colossal, but it becomes a lesson in restraint after 40 tension-filled seconds. Conversely, when Deerhoof experiments with an odd rhythm or sonic motif, the band invariably becomes engrossed in its own special wackiness. As a result, songs such as “Giga Dance” and “Rainbow Silhouette of the Milky Rain” sound as if they had been culled from the good-guy/bad-guy dance sequences of some long-lost Leonard Bernstein opus.

There’s one strong thread connecting these songs to what the rest of us might call rock ’n’ roll, though. Drummer and founding Deerhoofer Greg Saunier is an imaginative powerhouse—maybe not on a Keith Moon level, but certainly in his own orbit among indie rock’s more notorious drum geeks. Apple O’ and 2002’s Reveille allowed him to show off at times, but Milk Man is all about finesse. Even when his rhythms are chopped and reconstituted Pro Tools–style, there’s a remarkable sure-handedness in his playing. (If you’ve never seen the band live, the performance footage on the DVD issued by the Bay Area cable show Burn My Eye! is all about Saunier’s beat-making prowess.)

If Saunier is still the trusted dad driving the magic bus, then wee vocalist/bassist Satomi Matsuzaki is still the star child surfing on the roof. The lyrics on Milk Man are surprisingly cohesive, at least when read from the CD booklet: The mysterious Milk Man lures boys and girls to his dream land. There are feasts and struggles, a king is toppled, and everybody gets “New Sneakers.” But by the time that song closes the disc with organ chords, a synthetic beat, and Matsuzaki’s high-pitched observations of “Strawberry fields banana trees/Banana fields strawberry trees,” the verbals seem strangely pointless. A concept album that’s nonchalant about its concept? Now that’s indie-rock.

As on previous Deerhoof records, Matsuzaki’s overall emotional detachment makes the lyrics far less annoying than they could be. And it helps, too, that English is her second language. (She joined Deerhoof in medias res after moving from Tokyo in the mid-’90s.) As a result, Milk Man’s many lines about food and animals sound more like encrypted personal thoughts than corny literary devices. The one song in Spanish, “Desapareceré,” is just as imagistic as the others, and it seems to be about mystic soup.

Guitarists John Dieterich and Chris Cohen, meanwhile, get only a few chances to wield their axes like gentlemen of danger. The instrumental “That Big Orange Sun Run Over Speed Light” could be a showstopper if it didn’t break down at calculated intervals, like a Don Caballero track without the manic energy. The clangy guitar lines on “Milking” come closer to rockin’ out, sounding directly lifted from the Breeders’ Last Splash—which, incidentally, was made by two guitarists who weren’t exactly experts at their instruments.

It’s safe to say that Dieterich and Cohen are better players than the Deal sisters, even though they don’t necessarily sound like it. Milk Man’s lack of big musical climaxes might be frustrating for hair-metal apologists or garage enthusiasts, but it can’t be assailed as ironic or smarmy, and it can’t be written off as the work of bored, self-serving intellectuals. It just sounds natural, even when Deerhoof is wrapped up in artifice. CP