Kicker of Pandas 

Does disliking Deerhoof make you a culturally devoid knucklehead? Let's hope not.

The first meeting of PAD THAI -- People Against Deerhoof That Have Average Intelligence -- will now come to order. Come on in, guys. Don't be shy.

It's going to be okay.

Everyone loves Deerhoof, SF's premiere art-pop weirdo quartet. The Runners Four, its fourth Kill Rock Stars album in as many years (and sixth overall), has garnered either gushing reviews or Great, But I Preferred Their Earlier Stuff pats on the head. Celebrating its release at the Great American Music Hall last Saturday night, the sold-out crowd's waves of adulation were quite literal: "We love you!" folks shouted. "You're so cool!"

Put simply, the band is big enough to inspire near-unanimous praise but not prominent enough to trigger an Arcade Fire-sized backlash. Furthermore, the music itself is so confounding -- schizophrenic two-minute blasts that lurch instantly from the pastorally twee to the murderously abrasive -- that it's easy to get overwhelmed, disoriented, and ultimately convinced that you're just not wise and sophisticated enough to Get It.

Hence, PAD THAI. Disliking this band is not a crime, nor a sign of doofishness.

"Disliking" isn't even the right word. Deerhoof's hoedown at the Great American was perversely enjoyable -- ultra-enthusiastic crowds are great fun even if you ain't in 'em, and the venue's mighty soundsystem (far superior to those of the warehouse/tiny-club circuit) rendered every snare-crack and noodly guitar stab booming, visceral, and inescapable. They sounded two hundred feet tall -- even diminutive frontlady Satomi Matsuzaki, who cycled through goofy air traffic controller hand gestures as she cooed her cartoonish odes to pandas, ducks, lemons, and creepy milkmen.

But Satomi is also the litmus test for whether you'll ultimately find Deerhoof moving or just maddening -- her vocals are relentlessly cutesy and wide-eyed, Alice to her band's venomous Wonderland. This can get way affected and aggravating. Perhaps I am permanently scarred by the first Deerhoof tune I ever heard, "Panda Panda Panda," with her bouncy childlike pronouncements of Pong-pong, pong-pong, pong-pong pong-pong, pong-pong, panda! Pong-pong, pong-pong, pong-pong pong pong, pong-pong, China! She isn't exactly Ronnie James Dio.

That tune belongs to the era of thirty-minute, carefree, sonically tumultuous records like Apple O' and Reveille, though; The Runners Four is billed as the band's Big Statement, a more subdued and artful and emotional twenty-track, hour-long affair that seems to betray a lot of vulnerability. Pirates on an odyssey, odyssey, bassist Chris Cohen offers with a frail croon, ask our captain 'What will be? What will be?'

Live, though, that's just a momentum killer, adding to the theory that Deerhoof is a full-blast noise-rock monstrosity weighed down with too much stone-skipping whimsy. Whether you find Runners Four resonant and beautiful or simply jarring and random depends entirely on your mood, and regardless of your mood there are toxic quantities of cuteness poured throughout. Thoroughly righteous tunes like "Scream Team" (a sort of psychotic Monkees theme song) are buried in long meandering stretches that feel sonically obstinate and emotionally distant. You have to work hard to project meaning onto a lot of this, and the unfettered adoration of those around you only compels you to work harder and really screw things up.

So relax. It's odd (and quite inspiring) that a band so obtuse and highfalutin' and difficult can trigger such effusive praise, but not joining the choir does not lower your IQ or social standing. For some folks, it's aural comfort food, but there's no shame whatsoever in preferring pad Thai.

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