La Isla Bonita
Polyvinyl Records, 2014
Review by Kent Manthie
A great new release, out now, that you should take a little while and give a listen to is La Isla Bonita, the new CD San Francisco’s Deerhoof. It is a powerful sounding album, full of great pomp, yet done with their typical understated, minimalistic but frenetic, eclectic, bombastic noise-rock. The album starts out with a semi-pop-like song, “Paradise Girls”, which is very groovy, from the get-go. Lead singer Satomi Matsuzaki, who adds a lovely, Japanese-style pop flavor which juxtaposes nicely with the edgier, experimenting-with-many-sounds style that the rest of the band delivers. “Big House Waltz” is a good example of the great, “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink”, big sound that Deerhoof delivers. There is, virtually, a wall of sound behind Satomi’s lovely, ethereal singing; frenetic, noodling guitars that are arpeggio-ing all over the place, and so many other added layers of sound, different guitars coming and going and harmonizing all over the place.
Deerhoof has a history going back 20 years. In 1994, Greg Saunier and Rob Fisk formed Deerhoof, originally as a duo focused on stream-of-consciousness improv, using only drums and bass, recording their early singles on four track cassette was how they showed up in the musical world, DIY-style, not waiting around, pressing labels with demos and then awaiting call-backs, and the usual rigamarole. The music they made during the early days of Deerhoof’s existence was a combination of raw, flannel-covered garage-rock, “punk” and noise-rock, mixed with some ballads. The sound, the style, all seemed a perfect fit for San Francisco, home of many legendary bands and a city known for its being eclectic and individualistic.
The next year, 1995, in May, having just arrived in the US, from Japan and being here only a week, Satomi Matsuzaki joined up with Deerhoof, even though she had no previous experience singing in bands; Rob & Greg must’ve heard something special in that voice of hers. By the next week after Satomi joining, the band was on tour, as the opening slot for Caroliner.
In 1997, after having recorded a number of cassette singles and touring a good deal, Deerhoof recorded their first full-length CD, The Man, The King, The Girl. The album expanded, somewhat, the raw, fiery, stripped-down sound of their early singles by adding catchy hooks and melodies, bringing an interesting and inexpensive addition of instrumentation: old Casiotones and a synthesizer they borrowed. Already, by the release of The Man, The King, The Girl, Deerhoof’s trademark low-budget, creative big sound was set. As for their songs, they built up a reputation as a band that wrote songs with great melodies and catchy tunes, enigmatic, sometimes bordering on “mystical”, lyrics; songs that would all fit together, somehow, and make-up certain concepts for their future albums.
Later on in 1997, Deerhoof started making arrangements to record what they thought would be their second full-length CD, which was going to be called Halfbird. But after getting started, they soon abandoned the project due to members wanting to go off into a new direction, a different style. It was around this time that Kelly Goode joined the band, she played keyboards and at the same time, Satomi taught herself to play the bass. Then, for the next two years, Deerhoof, taking some time off from any new recording, decided to focus on touring and that’s exactly what they did. Over that time span they toured with such bands as Unwound, Lightning Bolt, Sonic Youth and Sleater-Kinney.
Finally, in 1999, they seem to have gotten a new groove on and the result was a markedly different Deerhoof. On Holdypaws, the album they released in 1999, gone were many of the traits that they started out with: the improvisation, the “noise-rock” style and they even cut out the “unusual” instrumentation- sticking to a typical rock sound: guitars, bass, drums, keyboards. But, fans of Deerhoof would see these sudden style changes and different formats as a kind of trademark: expect to be challenged or surprised. The stylistic changes that emerged on Holdypaws must’ve really gotten to Rob Fisk, because in 1999 he quit the band for good. Later in 1999 former Gorge Trio guitarist John Dietrich was recruited to come on board.
For the next release, Deerhoof finally brought out what they’d been working on in 1997, before they abandoned the project, so in 2001, Halfbird finally saw the light of day. Their next release, Reveille, was the first album of theirs to prick up the ears of music critics; the album also had a quality about it that was due to the input of Dietrich, who had a great interest in electronic music. Another thing about Reveille is that Chris Cohen joined just before it was released, playing guitar.
After that period, things just seemed to keep going uphill for Deerhoof. They continued to tour quite a bit, playing with a variety of bands and over the next 12 years they continued putting out albums. If you count this new one, La Isla Bonita, they’ve released nine albums up to now. Their lineup has stayed quite stable over these 20 years: in their current form, the band consists of co-founder Greg Saunier, Satomi Matsuzaki, John Dietrich and Ed Rodriguez.
For La Isla Bonita, Deerhoof seems to have returned, somewhat, to their eclectic roots, although, the production value is quite high. The guitars are all over the place, there are layers of atmospheric sounds, noise, varied instruments with Satomi’s angelic voice on top of it all. Songs that stick out include the aforementioned “Paradise Girls”, the opener, which is just so catchy and has such a fabulously high production value that it grabs you and keeps you listening for more. After “Paradise Girls” comes “Mirror Monster”, on which Deerhoof, after the semi-pop opening cut, digs a little deeper and throws in more sounds, layers and inventiveness. “Doom” starts out with a distorted bass line and then it opens up to a frenetic whammy of a song that hops all over. It has a kind of “island feel” to it, with what sounds like it could be a ukelele set up with a pick-up, unless it’s just a guitar that’s been modified to sound like that. The effect the bass is plugged into really cool, it gives it a lighter touch as well. “Last Fad” is also really slick. The guitar on here, in some parts, even reminds me a little of Steve Howe’s guitar on such mid-70s Yes albums as Close to the Edge, Relayer and Tales From Topographic Oceans – it’s the chords that stand out.
I could go on and on about each song, with a description of the great guitar work, the wonderful singing, etc., like on “Tiny Bubbles” or “God 2” and so on, but, suffice it to say, La Isla Bonita is a really spectacular album; one that really shines and shows how 20 years of making a variety of albums, shifting their style, occasionally, has really turned Deerhoof into a fascinating band and the fact that their still independent and that they haven’t sold out to “the man” is a testament to their tight focus on the preciousness of their music and their fiercely independent outlook. Hope you enjoy this! -KM.