The Runners Four

(Kill Rock Stars; 2005)

By Sean Ford | 10 October 2005

A terrific boon for its Cliff Notes guide to music history, Allmusic is one of the sites I tend to visit on a daily basis, whether it’s to look up obscure band members, get album art for iTunes, remember track lists or read enough about a band to pretend I’ve heard them before. I don’t normally pay too much attention to their actual reviews, but it’s hard to ignore the site’s authorative-looking star rating system. If an album achieves perfection, five stars from AMG, it looks somehow official and kind of daunting.

So what was the last “rock” album that the All Music Guide awarded five stars? Radiohead’s OK Computer. OKC came out over eight years ago! So, is AMG trying to tell us something? Have we really gone the better part of a decade without a five star rock record, whilst rap has scored at least a dozen AMG-certified five-star records in the same time span? Did Radiohead kill rock’n’roll?

May I present an alternative? Perhaps with all this instantaneous “I only made it to the fourth track, but man, did it suck” hyper-criticism, in an effort to hear as many albums as humanly possible in a given year, in an effort to be as “up” on as much music as we possibly can, we’ve become quick to dismiss potential classics. See, if music is actually doing something different, even slightly different, it can take a while to sink in. If classics are truly as dense and layered as we all dream of them to be, shouldn’t it take a while to peel away those layers? And since AMG has been known to change their star-ratings over time, it is possible they may retro-actively decide that one rock album from 1998-2005 deserves five-stars… right?

The albums I would nominate for five stars over the last eight years or so are a potentially esoteric bunch: the Microphone’s Glow Pt. 2; McLusky’s The Difference Between Me and You Is I’m Not On Fire; the Boredom’s Vision Creation Newsun; Xiu Xiu’s A Promise; Radiohead’s Kid A; the Unicorn’s WWCOHWWG?; Arab Strap’s Philophobia; the Fall’s The Unutterable; the Fiery Furnaces Blueberry Boat<; Mogwai’s CODY, and a few others. The common denominator that runs through all those choices, personal though they may be, is that they all had a lengthy gestation period before winning my allegiance. On my first listen to Mclusky’s last album, I probably would have said: “hmm, nice, 86.” But the weirdness, nastiness, catchiness and genius of that album unfolded itself over time to the point where now it’s one of those albums I hold up to friends who try to tell me rock is dead.

So, by now, you’re twitching your mouse, impatiently asking, “is this all worth it?” Is Deerhoof’s The Runners Four one of those albums? A bonafide five-star album? One of those "perfect rock albums"?

Answer: maybe.

Because, truthfully, this is one of those albums that needs time to sink in. Deerhoof has always made a name for itself by marrying the cute with the catastrophic, but has, to my ears, always veered too much towards either end of the spectrum, never finding a happy medium. On The Runners Four, they’ve cut their breakneck tempos down to something more manageable (listenable) and near-perfected an already impressive ear for melody. Moreover, they’re not so ashamed of those pitch perfect moments anymore; they’ve allowed their listeners the pleasure of reveling in melodies that were once veritable easter eggs, hidden between the avalanche of Greg Saunier’s heart-attack drums, the mile-a-minute sludgy guitars and the almost unbearable twee of Satomi Matsuzaki.

The Runners Four finds the four members of Deerhoof reigning in some of their trademark cartoon-y aggression and cooing. The resulting sound is definitely more democratic and reeks of an advance in the band’s compositional skills. In particular, the guitars of Chris Cohen and John Dieterich absolutely shine; alternating fluttering riffs or single notes, they manage to both beautify and diversify Deerhoof’s landscape. Credit also goes to Saunier for recognizing the beauty/necessity in the spaces between his apocalyptical beats.

And while Satomi has always been either an irritable presence in Deerhoof’s sound (or the element that elevates Deerhoof above those other avant-bands, depending on who you ask), her delivery this time out is so considered and restrained and her lyrics so bizarrely dead-on that this has to be her finest effort. I mean she actually sounds great here, her vox landing somewhere between the lands of no-wave, cartoons and pop. So, oddly, the band has somehow reigned in or tightened the elements of Deerhoof that tended to scare or bludgeon away potential listeners. The catch for the ever-contradictory band is that though The Runners Four may be their most accessible record, it’s also their lengthiest (in minutes and tracks), and by far their most eclectic.

Now, it’s not like this was unheralded by previous efforts. Milk Man (2004) hinted at the band’s growing interest in rock songs that adhered to some sort of tradition and the band has belied an unfailing attraction to pop ever since The Man, The King and The Girl‘s “Polly Bee.” But The Runners Four is more focused than either of those records. It opens with “Chatterboxes,” featuring Cohen and Dietrich trading notes and creating a texture that has always been lacking from Deerhoof’s work. Their guitar work is a consistent draw; bringing continuity to the fractured air that permeated earlier albums like Reveille. The key is restraint; they’ve learned that when every instrument is blaring full speed, something can get lost in the white noise. Now, instruments drop in and out, harmonies are picked up, beats rejoined and some wonderful timing is apparent in the spaces in-between. This is the sound of a band that has hit its stride after ten years of working its ass off.

“Running Thoughts” demonstrates the new-found restraint perfectly, finding the band sounding like a nastier Stereolab-meets-Sonic Youth. “Twin Killers” starts like a “Dear Prudence” for a parallel universe before diving into a ’70s funk groove; it’s also the most blatant of the album’s many featuring Satomi’s lyrical obsession with mirror images and doubles. Saunier lends his pipes to “Odyssey,” revealing a slightly off-key, but breezy, sorrowful delivery that is a nice counterpoint to Satomi’s cheery vocals. The excellent “Lemon & Little Lemon” is one of the many places where Deerhoof sounds achingly pretty with a descending guitar riff complemented by glorious chiming. (I’ve always had an appreciation for Deerhoof, but I’ve never been able to find much about their sound "pretty." Strange?)

And while we operate in a system where I’m supposed to give this album a rating right here, right now and live with that rating for the rest of my days, I’d love it if I could somehow shortlist this album for future consideration alongside other gems from ’05 like Tender Buttons, Alligator, and Animal Collective’s Feels. Ideally, I’d come back to them in a few years and let everyone know whether they were classics or not, whether they aged well and held up through the years. But since that’s not how it works, you’ll just have to take my word for it that The Runners Four is the best record Deerhoof has ever made, one of the finest albums of the year and potentially worthy of future consideration for five-stardom and canonization from AMG, were they to do that sort of thing anymore.