A little like their predecessors Yo La Tengo, Deerhoof have been so consistently good and so doggedly curious for so long it is tempting to take them for granted. With rare exceptions since their riotous late ’90s arrival on The Man, The King, The Girl, they have perfectly balanced the paradoxical compulsions to be both a snarling indie rock band in love with angular guitars and noise, and to be a magnetic pop act with hooks that set quick and deep.
The first half of their fifth live album—To Be Surrounded By Beautiful, Curious, Breathing, Laughing Flesh Is Enough, borrowed from a Walt Whitman classic that is woefully aspirational in these socially distanced times—is a summary reminder of their long-term achievements. Recorded during a headlining slot at New York’s Winter Jazzfest in 2018, Deerhoof bound from 2007 to 2017 to 1997 in six songs. They grind through the early infectious powerhouse “Polly Bee” and churn out an excellent take on “I Will Spite Survive,” a Trump-era anthem about overcoming oppression that suggests Fountains of Wayne jubilantly covering Foreigner. The push-and-pull between Satomi Matsuzaki’s beguiling lead and the bruising rock band around her is perfect, the result of two decades teasing out this dynamic equilibrium.
But it’s the last five songs—one-off collaborations with Wadada Leo Smith, one of his generation’s great conceptual composers and trumpeters—that offer the best testimonials to Deerhoof’s flexibility. Smith immediately adds bright blasts to the funky strut of “Snoopy Waves,” then slips seamlessly with the band into a surrealist blues denouement. Smith howls during “Breakup Songs,” offering a jagged counterpart to the guitars’s aggression, and leads the way on “Last Fad” from noisy paroxysms to playful tangles and, finally, to what feels like a prayer for their time together. Perhaps this pairing seems strange. But for 20 glorious minutes, Smith and Deerhoof share the language of adventure that has defined their respective careers.