Animal kingdom 

New music from Buzzcocks and Deerhoof, oh my!

Buzzcocks
Buzzcocks
Merge

The world of pop-punk has grown up around the Buzzcocks, like miles of suburban sprawl stretching past a stately old house that was once on the edge of town, or a mass of parasitic, strangling vines finally pulling down one of the oldest trees in the forest. This eponymous debut on Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Merge Records isn’t the Buzzcocks’ strongest material, but it’s by no means their weakest, and either way it kicks righteous ass on 90 percent of the bratty little la-la-la Teen Beat pop-punk bands out there.

Rarely clocking it at more than three minutes apiece, the 12 tracks on this release find the band playing exactly what it started out playing, and has for the most part stuck to playing over an intermittent thirty-year career: stripped-down pop songs with minor-key, rainy-day chords jammed into staccato blasts of poppy punk with brilliant changes. It’s a pretty basic recipe, but few bands ever seem to do it as well as these Manchester originals. They’re like a British Ramones in that respect, playing sturdy, rock-simple tunes that come apart like wet cake when other bands try to cover them.

Tinny production was always part of the Buzzcocks’ appeal, a flat sheet of scraping guitar that made Pete Shelley’s aggro tenor stand out front and center like a nervous teenage emcee. This recording is much heavier, with growling guitars and more varied vocal textures than the band had in its quiver circa 1978. Not many more, but enough to be reminded every three tracks or so that Shelley isn’t the only songwriter in the band. With fellow guitarist/vocalist Steve Diggle introducing his biggest batch of songs since the band reformed in 1989 (after breaking up in 1981), there’s a different kind of tension on this release. “Jerk” is vintage Shelley, a hard-charging three-minute gem that would have been right at home in the sequence of peerless early singles anthologized on Singles Going Steady (the Buzzcocks were always a singles band first and foremost). The same can be said for Diggle’s first song on the record, “Wake Up Call,” which reintroduces a Buzzcocks trademark—a two-note guitar part that sounds like a European police siren. Pop-punk rarely sounds as good as the Buzzcocks. Old fans won’t be disappointed with this release, and hopefully a couple hundred lesser bands that unconsciously owe the Buzzcocks a debt not worth collecting in devalued pop currency will concede defeat forever and break up tomorrow. Deerhoof
Apple O’
Kill Rock Stars

Sigh. Just when a band is right where you want ’em, they go and change on you. Apple O’ is a great record—a great Deerhoof record, even—but after last year’s Reveille it’s like getting only half of the picture. Parted, at least temporarily, are the great curtains of noise. Gone is the unusual instrumentation that made the Bay Area quartet sound so wonderfully at odds with itself over whether to retreat into ’60s adult contemporary or plunge into full-on no-wave freakout once and for all.

Deerhoof is still a challenging band to get to grips with. Their songs sound like Dada cut-ups of Dada-cutups, pieced together from styles of music that probably wouldn’t greet one another on a lonely Sunday sidewalk, then cut up and pieced together again. Maybe it’s good that Apple O’ meets the prospective listener halfway toward accessibility—though still nowhere near The Blaze or Z-100—by setting aside the deluxe stable of restless sounds and just going at it with a few of the big boisterous ones and a few of the shy quiet ones. It’s like painting with one big brush and one little pointy one and making a new aesthetic of voluntary privation—but this is a band paring away at its own sound for you. Maybe if I’d heard Apple O’ first, going back and finding Reveille later, last year’s Deerhoof would have sounded too kitchen-sinky with all its extraneous bells and flutes crammed all anyhow into the arrangements. But having heard how many balls the band can keep in the air at once, Apple O’ sounds a little too placid. There’s even a spot or two where it sounds like they’re spinning their wheels trying to get out of some lovely sonic muck before they have to get out and push, and for such a restlessly inventive band, that’s a little nerve-racking.

The one thing you can count on from one Deerhoof release to the next is the thin, cool voice of bassist Satomi Matsuzaki, tracing the monster guitar parts of Chris Cohen and John Dieterich like a freshet from a mountain spring slipping around mossy boulders. It’s a funny thing about female Japanese vocalists in punk and indie music, they always seem to fall into one of two categories: insane screamers like Melt Banana’s YaSuKo Onuki, or barely-inflected Hello Kitty peepers like Mastsuzaki. Never mind that what she’s singing is total nonsense (sample lyric, from “Panda Panda Panda”: “China panda, bamboo panda/I like panda/Bye bye panda/Panda road”); the very presence of Mastsuzaki’s vocal is a cool hand to help you through a bout with the bed-spins.

And never mind the slight case of post-Reveille letdown. Apple O’ still offers some marvelously varied terrain for newcomers and returning fans to discover, a little barer than it’s been before but still more lush and scenic than a lot of the alternatives. Recent career developments have brought Deerhoof a good deal of well-deserved exposure, too, with indie den-mothers Sonic Youth tucking the band lovingly underwing and taking them along on tour. Start with either Reveille or Apple O’, brace yourself for the other one, and learn what all the hubbub is going to be about.

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