Can Bradford Cox be trusted? That’s the question that must have been running through the minds of fans of the talented New York City scuzz rocker ahead of his band Deerhunter’s European tour.
From 11 October, when the band were to play Dublin, to their final date at London’s Roundhouse on 6 November, Cox should have been doing his best to erase the memory from fans’ brains of his hour-long rendition of The Knack’s My Sharona in Ohio last year. Performing under his Atlas Sound moniker, he traded barbs with a heckler who drunkenly suggested he play the tune. And so he did, while inviting members of the Carnivores and the Frankie Broyles to join the cruel circus sideshow. It was ugly. And just when he was set to rehabilitate his reputation across the pond, Cox has cancelled the band’s European tour citing “family circumstances at home for multiple members of the band”. Well, here’s what could have been…
The four-strong band he assembled on the 9:30 Club stage in Washington DC had obviously been locked in the rehearsal room, putting the finishing touches to a gig that was consummately professional, if rather subdued, over 65 minutes. In fact, the band was so tight and clinical in its execution of Cox’s wonky guitar-based dream pop that was worth wondering if a bit of the Cox madness might not have gone amiss.
The best tunes to emerge from the rigorous rehearsal schedule hailed from their new(ish) album Monomania. Already more complex and layered than previous efforts, it required the guitar slung around the towering frame of Cox and two more guitars from his duo of sidekicks, one on each flank, to recreate the intricate lines swirling through his songs. But he also reached deep into his back catalogue to open with Wash Off from the Flourescent Grey EP as Cox peered out from under his ear-length tousled hair to croon the line “I was 16…” before ending the verse with a hearty shout. With the guitarists left to round out Cox’s guitar grandeur, and a bass player and a drummer instructed not to deviate from their rock solid, if fairly generic, support, the show largely became a platform for Cox to flesh out his bedroom-inspired psychedelic musings. He cooed and screamed into the microphone in equal parts, occasionally prowling across the stage to issue grumpy orders to the sound man.
With tunes Neon Junkyard and Don’t Cry following – including the impassioned burst of a tortured “cry your eyes out” from Cox on the latter – the tunes were revealed to be as lush as they were mind-bending, played in front of a David Lynch-esque curtain that shimmered an incandescent shade of blue velvet. The tunes sounded dark and strange and the industrial use of reverb, echo and delay only added to the swirling sense of surreal displacement. And it worked. Just.
Where things got less tight and felt slightly ramshackle was when they hit Desire Lines from Halycon Digest. “Come with me, woo-hoo” chimed Cox as the band exploded into noise. Here – live at least – the song exhibited a strong likeness to The Cure with their plucked melodic lead guitar lines and solemn, pummeling bass and drum backdrops. But any threat of monotony was instantly broken by a stunning guitar run from Cox. And the trot, rather than gallop, of the band continued as Cox perplexingly handed over singing duties on Monomania’s Blue Agent to concentrate on playing the guitar. He was missed.
But then the band strike. Launching into an epic version of Helicopter, they tease the song out, wringing every moment of hazy, dense claustrophobia from its ambling nocturnal vibe. Cox’s super-processed guitar solo breaks shred the calm before retreating into the distance, leaving the groove once again threatening to lullaby the crowd into a trance of feedback. And on the strength of the tracks from the new album, plus the impressive Helicopter, it’s enough proof that Deerhunter can knock out a convincing gig without disappointment. But this is just the halfway point, and the quintet chugs along for another 35 minutes or so before walking off the stage in a howl of swirling feedback, capping off with a triumphant take on title track Monomania.
We will never know if the sound man was set to be the only one to feel the sharp tongue of Cox during his appearances this autumn. But when Cox and co do finally arrive, let’s hope they pack a bit more unhinged anarchy and wicked humour into their setlist.