The Runners Four
ast time I saw Deerhoof, they wore soccer jerseys from opposing teams. And Deerhoof are a spectator sport, in certain ways. Of course, the game’s only known to the participants, and the rules radiate from tremors within their bones, unwritten—it’s a volatile alchemy that causes them to pass around/wrestle the ol’ cosmic bond. Operating like a set of magnets with an unseen charge at the center, they spin out of orbits, fly towards each other, and occasionally lock only to be ripped apart. There’s no run-go-fetch logic to Deerhoof; when they’re great, it’s like a good round of guide-the-spirit, which is sort of like blindfolded downhill skiing: shaky as hell and twice as thrilling.
Thematically, The Runners Four explores that charge, but aesthetically, it often betrays it. It is refreshing that they’re slowly letting go of the sack-of-lit-fireworks-in-a-porta-john shtick that pigeonholed them, but in doing so they seem to have given up that unnamable ghost, brightening the corners that haunted their ballads and tapering the incendiary uncertainty that made them so powerful. While The Runners Four is probably their most consistent album, they’ve always been the kind of band for whom consistency could slide, because when they were on, it felt like they could swallow the world and throw it up again with everything in the same place. They were magic.
It’s unfair to jerk knees and dismiss them for not being Deerhoof-y enough (read: not what is happening here), but there are troubling moments when the budding straightforwardness explored on The Runners Four seems antithetical for a group that has so deliberately and often amazingly been able to make music both startlingly new and strangely pure. If the answer to “What is Deerhoof like?” used to be met with a sigh followed by crippled sentences and ultimately, the grisly sound of one’s brain shredding itself, now one could say “They’re a good indie rock band with awesome guitar parts and a spooky flower-child vibe.” (Incidentally, the 60’s influences have really come full-bloom, tempering Beefheart with the jubilance of the Who, psych-pop melodies, some period kitsch, and prog-redux breaks. Even the compressed, popping production of the record makes it sound a little like a relic.) Despite the shock of non-shock, they’ve still got reams of style and potential over most of the competition; The Runners Four is a good album on a lot of scales, but maybe not the best when weighed on the band’s own.
Additionally, the relative traditionalism of some of the songs also opens up Deerhoof’s most vulnerable spot for casual (or non-) fans: cuteness. Satomi Matsuzaki’s disaffected, enchanting pixie routine has basically stayed the same, but it feels a lot different to hear her wander through green pastures when part of her power used to be in the fact that there was always a forest burning down around her; still, it’s when the guys take over vocals on some of the tracks that things get dangerously adorable rather than adorable and dangerous.
Another issue is that The Runners Four is incredibly long, at least by Deerhoof’s standards. Their past three full-lengths (Reveille, Apple O’, and Milk Man) have been stunning in their density, all between 29 and 32 minutes long and still more than rich enough to tide any fan over for at least a year. At 57 minutes, The Runners Four fumbles the economy that often made the band so dazzling; Deerhoof v. 3.0 highlights like the twilight surf-samba of “Spirit Ditties With No Tone” or the surging joy of “O’Malley, Former Underdog” can get lost in the shuffle, like they forgot to trim the fat from the goose.
Alright, so Deerhoof aren’t 10-foot tall jackrabbits gnashing rock riffs and spitting shrapnel in our collective eyes anymore—that’s fine. Despite its exhilarating moments, The Runners Four feels like it’s missing something; it might even be that thing that made fans believe the band could toss rings of Saturn like frisbees. It’s a conflicting spot to be in, because while they’ve shed their stereotype, they seemed to have partially forgotten the progress that led them there, instead making a quizzical sashay sideward. The Runners Four isn’t a peak for the band, but it’s growth, and by some conservative logic, better to blossom than to die.