Deerly Beloved, We Have Gathered Here Today to Get Through this Thing Called Life.
So many turn of the century indie bands chose to name themselves after deer or some part of that particularly stupid two-toed animal’s anatomy. It’s actually kind of maddening. There’s Deer Tick, Deerhoof, The Antlers, Caribou, The Dear Hunter (which I guess is technically named after a movie) John Deere… Goatwhore… the list just goes on. And finally there’s Deerhunter, a group whose inability to decide on which side of the alternative/indie rock coin their loyalty lies actually cemented their status in the upper echelon of hipness alongside The Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens. This all happened in the blink of an eye, shortly after “Nothing Ever Happened” hit international airwaves. It’s a shame that the buzz generated by the Atlanta outfit’s breakthrough record Microcastle overshadowed their brilliantly titled and significantly ballsier debut Turn It Up Faggot. Not only because the music of the latter is more far more interesting and abrasive, but because it would have been hilarious to see the phrase Turn It Up Faggot at the top of “Best of 2008” lists of socially-progressive critical instructions like Pitchfork and NPR.
Anyway, here we are again with Fading Frontier, another record that Bradford Cox has plopped into our laps that already has a nine-in-ten chance of being the most statistically acclaimed album of the year, because that’s how music works in the age of ass media. Fading Frontier opens with a track called “All The Same”, practically baiting detractors into saying “Heh, just like every Atlas Sound song, heh. Heh heh.” The record kicks off in a more earthbound fashion than any of Deerhunter’s recent landmarks, leading the listener by the hand through a menagerie of one-off percussion sounds, from tiny cymbals and woodblocks to that weird springy, smack-ball thing that’s in the beginning of “Crazy Train.” “All the Same” also features the intriguing stanza “My friend’s dad got bored / Changed his sex and had no more wife, no more kids / Nothing left to live with,” which is interesting coming from a guy who earned a big portion of his early notoriety by consistently wearing a dress on stage and making indie garage pop androgynous enough to be enjoyed by both you and your socially conscious girlfriend. In a good way. Like The Cure. Or The Cult. Or Flock of Seagulls.
In a sudden jolt, “Living My Life” calls back to Deerhunter’s indie-tronica phase. It crosses laid-back Hawaiian influences, the artistic surf rock touch of Pet Sounds and futurist synths in a similar vein to Panda Bear’s Tomboy. The end product is remarkably similar to Caribou’s new record as well, opting to sub out clicks for snare hits and “boop” sounds for tom drums. Even though the good-natured, keyboard-fueled bop of “Breaker” and the slightly grating, harpsichord-filled “Duplex Planet” sound almost nothing like their lauded early material, both songs will remind listeners of how Deerhunter managed to get this far in the first place. Their ensemble is tiny and lo-fi and unassuming, but also giant and enveloping. Their sounds are cutesy and diminished, but also elegant and ethereal in a strange, deliberate way.
On certain Fading Frontier tracks, the gang stick to only one side of this divide. “Take Care,” which mushes together equal parts Fender and Casio with a smatter of glockenspiel bells to create the atmosphere of a 1950’s high school prom, takes a more conservative route while “Leather and Wood” leans a little farther to the conceptual left with its sparse, skeletal grand piano, ghostly falsetto and jagged electronic sounds that arhythmically poke in their heads to spice things up, like Kramer into Jerry’s apartment.
“Snakeskin” relives the horn-filled, swaggering glam rock of Halcyon Digest, albeit slightly more disjointed. Like all the best tracks from the 2010 record, “Snakeskin” sounds like David Bowie from the get-go, from the mixing/production of the vocals and guitar to the sneering way Cox pronounces the word “walk”. With the cadence of “Fame”, the guitar tone of “Starman”, the bassline of “Suffragette City” and non-sequitur-filled lyrics and delivery of “Life on Mars,” “Snakeskin” is a regular Stardust sandwich.
“Carrion” ends another solid Deerhunter record, but one that is ultimately outshined on two fronts. 2013’s Monomania was more frenetic and textual and hot blooded and all together exciting – you can practically hear each guitar string scratch against pick in tracks like “Neon Junkyard” and “The Missing.” Conversely, Halcyon Digest is a little more uniform and slick, but it has grander arrangements and a more cohesive, noise-filled atmosphere all the way though. Fading Frontier is a fun, decently varied record, but it doesn’t really gain the traction that previous Deerhunter records muster within their respective opening tracks. Or as Pitchfork would say, 9.7/10.