Over the course of 12 albums and 20 years, Deerhoof have never been a band to stand still or repeat. Constantly pushing at the edges of alt-rock, they’re no strangers to clashing genres and ignoring conventions. In fact, wilful juxtaposition of opposing musical forms is quite often where they operate at their best. La Isla Bonita was originally intended to be Deerhoof’s take on over-produced pop, with Madonna and Janet Jackson being the primary influences.
When the band started to write the album however, they found themselves being pulled in a completely different direction. Drummer Greg Saunier bought the influence of Can and their psychedelic/krautrock sprawl to the table, whilst the band’s dalliance with The Ramones covers bought a punk/pop aesthetic.
Additionally, Deerhoof recorded the whole album in the space of a week down in guitarist Ed Rodriguez’s basement. This approach was inspired by the band playing their first basement show in years, where they found themselves experiencing feelings and sensations that they’d not had since the early days of the band. The result is an album that is immediate, fun, and a little lo-fi. It most certainly a huge step away from the over-produced album that they’d set out to make, but, like the best pop music, there’s a youthful spirit and playfulness at the heart of these songs.
It is possible to hear the band’s original intentions in these songs. Just. Paradise Girls for example is awash with little hooked riffs, and an insistent vocal refrain in praise of “girls who play the bass guitar”. At one point, it threatens to head off into streamlined funk as it bears an uncanny resemblance to The Ohio Players’ Love Rollercoaster for just a second, but Satomi Matsuzaki’s vocals keep things on track. The funk inflected bass runs of Big House Waltz also hint at the genesis of the idea behind La Isla Bonita, but its rattling drums, seething drones and skittering guitar hooks make for a ramshackle and discombobulating affair. Last Fad combines Captain Beeftheartian polyrhythms cutesy vocal hooks and a breakdown that wouldn’t be out of place in a disco. It’s as if they couldn’t quite concentrate on making a full on pop song for long enough, and just had to throw in a few angular moments. It’s this short-attention span approach to songwriting that would be infuriating in other hands, but somehow works perfectly for Deerhoof.
Elsewhere, Mirror Monster takes keeps things relatively serene, with shimmering guitars and delicate, almost whispered vocal lines; it is practically a dreamy ballad. Doom finds the band on more familiar ground, with cutesy licks tumbling over each other and morphing into something darker and tougher. Exit Only sees the band at their most direct and filtering those Ramones influences straight into their music. Rough around the edges and thoroughly invigorating, it’s the most forceful and fun they’ve sounded in years. The instrumental God2 is similarly barbed and spiky. Combining a fierce pop sensibility with stabbing guitar riffs, the result is not unlike B52s in their post-punk prime. Not quite so much fun, but just as effective is Oh Bummer, which sits on the cusp between goth and post-punk, brooding intently. Whilst La Isla Bonita might end on a downer musically, this is an album that finds Deerhoof sounding refreshed and eager to go for another 20 years.