I jumped in my seat a little bit when I read the words “Deerhoof (live album)” in an email the other day. My heart fluttered. How could I have gone twelve years (a majority of my life) listening to and loving Deerhoof, seeing them live, worshipping their musicianship, and never even have thought to wish for a live record out of them? I imagine it felt similar to the way some people must feel when they combine peanut butter and bananas, or dip fries in a milkshake, for the first time: I’d never thought about it before, but it makes perfect sense now, and yes, please, I would like to have it.
It took me a few minutes to realize why it was so surprising to see Deerhoof release a live record in 2015, other than the shock that they hadn’t done one already: people don’t really make live albums anymore. What used to float around as platinum-level currency in record stores is now pretty much relegated to Record Store Day special releases (like Deerhoof’s) and deep-vault scrapings such as the never-ending Bob Dylan Bootleg Series. (I mean “scrapings” the way a tiny sliver of gold is a “shaving.”) Hardly anybody ever does a live release outright, and they certainly aren’t welcomed into the Billboard charts and the canon the same way that Frampton Comes Alive! or Rust Never Sleeps were. What’s different now?
It’s possible that in the decades-long trimming-of-the-fat that record sales have faced, something had to go, and live releases were just the non-essential ledger items that lost too many bets. It kinda makes sense that that would be the case; even in the 1970s, when live albums—but not record sales in general, so an even more impressive slice of the pie—were at their peak, they still sold less than their studio counterparts. (And if bootlegs ate into their sales then, imagine the effects of YouTube now: a bootleg for virtually every show ever performed, instantly accessible, plus video.) They’ve always been fated to be off-year albums, or “massagers,” for a band’s market, and the ones that transcend that judgment to convince us that they’re a real release—a really special, new recording—are exceptions to the norm.
Deerhoof didn’t really do that on Fever 121614, but that’s because we don’t want them to. Live records have come so far from a novelty, past real-release grandeur and vocal overdubs in the studio, that they’re back to exactly what we liked them for in the first place: a simple, muscular document of what a band is. There are no new songs on Fever 121614; there aren’t even really any new arrangements. It’s just a straight-through, badass artifact of what it feels like to witness Deerhoof do what they do, and I’m so thankful for it.
They did it right all the way around: it’s short, it’s loud, and it’s not sterile (in its instruments) or cavernous (in its roominess). (They even recorded it on my birthday, 12/16/14.) I think that some modern live recordings—however few there are—suffer from a low attention to detail because they’re made in such suboptimal environments, with touring instruments, through touring microphones, with touring outboard in an extremely uncontrolled room. That doesn’t guarantee a bad-sounding record—you’re a pretentious wiener if you think you can’t make an entire album with Shure SM57s!—but it does mean a lot more work for everybody involved. The easy answer for an engineer is to really make it sound live, with lots of noise from the room and cavernous (natural) reverb across the board, but that still can’t mask merely OK-sounding instruments or a mediocre performance. Things always sound better in the room, when they’re blasting through an amplifier in your face, than they do when they’re recorded, so it’s easy to be satisfied with the way you play on stage, only to be horrified by it later. It takes an immense level of skill from a band—and care from an engineer—to adequately make that jump from sweaty, frenetic stage sound to a boxed-in, two-channel recording, and Fever 121614 does it perfectly.
The whole record rides pretty much straight through as a vicious, barbaric attack, with John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez’s guitars panned left and right, cushioning Greg Saunier’s drums and Satomi Matsuzaki’s vocals-bass in the middle. Greg gives the same drum performance that made me fall in love with Deerhoof in the first place: a purposefully arrhythmic, rambunctious bout of controlled chaos that sounds like Keith Moon if he were revived in the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste. It’s wound so tight, so energetic, that it sounds like a miracle that it doesn’t snap at any moment. (Of course, it never would—it’s effortless.) For their part, the band never really stops to breathe, except to let Satomi shout “ARIGATO!” to their Tokyo audience and for her really heartwarming call-and-response with the crowd at the very end of the show. My first reaction, ten seconds into the first song on the record, “Exit Only,” was (verbatim): “Holy fucking shit. Even more badass than the records. Jesus Christ. Hardest shit I’ve ever heard.” Deerhoof was able to turn me into a shit-grinning, foul-mouthed hard rock fan before the first chorus of the record even started, and that’s pretty good for any record, live or not.
In fact, Fever 121614 ends up feeling more like a Sex Pistols studio album than a live record at all. That’s not so much a testament to the studio-ness of Fever 121614 as it is to the live-ness of Never Mind the Bollocks, but it says something, too, about both bands’ ability to sound exactly like themselves—and different from each other; Deerhoof are more worldly, more prog, and more bright-eyed than the Sex Pistols ever were, but Fever 121614 borrows Never Mind the Bollocks’ dual-guitar ferocity—no matter where they are or what they’re playing. (It’s true that great players always sound like themselves—and sometimes they even sound like their own records.) Fever 121614 is an awesome opportunity to see disparate materials—twelve songs from seven different albums, different eras, different instruments, and even some different personnel—transposed into one space, in one fever, on one night. Whatever it lacks in a sonic diversity from the studio it makes up for in sheer magnitude; it’s Deerhoof at their most elemental, and we don’t miss much because of it.
If you ever forget why it is you like to play music, Deerhoof is there to remind you.