Saturday Night: Deerhunter Unveils Ghostly Art-Pop at Slim's

Cherrell Johnston
Real Estate
October 30, 2010
@ Slim's

Better than: Dressing up as Christopher Walken and/or Robert DeNiro from The Deer Hunter for Halloween and making Russian roulette references in front of strangers. 

There's a certain ghoulishness, something otherworldly and ghostlike, to the Deerhunter aesthetic -- the skeletal physique of bandleader/frontman/guitarist Bradford Cox probably has something to do with it -- that made seeing this band on Halloween weekend mysteriously appropriate. Undivided attention to this band yields haunting results, and even fleeting attention yields somewhat unnerving thoughts and visions. Saturday night at Slim's, where costumed concertgoers were in the minority, there was also something eerily plain to behold -- a four-piece pop band from Atlanta.

It's that dichotomy -- between traditional pop ideals and fringe sonic experimentation -- in which Deerhunter does its idiosyncratic bidding. Cox, ever the confident and artistically minded protagonist, made a point of this without ever having to say so directly. He came onto the stage and innocently announced "Halloween's almost here and it makes me wanna screeeeeaaam," as if he were a kindergarten teacher addressing his class. 

Cherrell Johnston
By the show's end, Halloween had indeed arrived, and so had Cox's signature stage theatrics. After finishing his vocal duties on the band's last song of the night, he draped a ghostly white towel over his microphone, stumbled around like he'd just taken a hit of acid (or as if he'd been possessed by some indie rock spirit of yore), then asked the band's tour manager (we think) to carry him off stage like a stiff corpse. What began as something flavorful and simple ended up odd yet intriguing, which is probably the best way to describe a typical Deerhunter song.

Four albums into forging a sonic adventure  all their own, Cox and company -- drummer Moses Archuleta, center-staged bassist Josh Fauver, and fearlessly mustachioed guitarist Lockett Pundt -- have earned a cultish street cred dealing in the traditions of punk and textural art-jamming at once. One of the first examples of this came on "Desire Lines" (from the recently released and deliciously weird-rockin' full-length Halcyon Digest), which initially measures out a sunny pop sound bordering on something out of the Arcade Fire book, with a stomping bass drum that seemed simple enough. Eventually the song became a more disheveled wail, with guitars painting abstractly over one another, and a meandering outro for the headbangers. 

"Agorophobia" navigated a similar route, with tempo-forward percussion holding out underneath psych-soaked layers. "Wash Off" followed the same evolution, structure holding tight until guitar riffs undressed and broke form, spraying out sonically like an uncontrolled hose. Songs often extended to eight-minutes and beyond, as was the case in "Nothing Ever Happened," and "Octet," which gave the band plenty of opportunities to loop vocals and other echoing effects while exploring the anatomy and limits of the guitar. Given the sophistication of its studio recordings, the Deerhunter live show measures up nicely, with technical polish and panache.

Cox is clearly a man of vision, but he is also a man of dry witticisms and confrontational, tongue-deep-in-cheek banter. During one interruption caused by a technical issue, Cox told us "you're getting something real special tonight." He then addressed bandmate Lockett Pundt, who "decided to be a big boy and grow a moustache." Somewhere in there, charm wiggled its way into the mix with steadfast sarcasm.

Cox also gave openers Real Estate a proper send off, this show was the the New Jersey beach noodlers' last on their current tour with Deerhunter. The band members tried to explain the situation at the end of their set, but Cox roamed out onstage with the words "No, no, no." (Cox handles these moments, guys.) "Tomorrow they embark on a failed journey to Japan. They're gonna be turned away at the border because they don't have visas," he joked, eventually adding "mazel tov," and "don't let panic run your life." And then he went on.

"Fuck real estate, you've destroyed the economy! ... What happens when they can't pay their mortgages?"

The look on Real Estate lead singer Martin Courtney's nonplussed face said something along the lines of, "Oh. You're welcome?"

And about Real Estate: This upstart four-piece also knows how to flesh out a jam in unexpected ways. The driving force is, perhaps ironically, the lazy guitar musings of Martin Courtney and Mathew Mondanile, which we associate more with the porches of the Jersey shore than anything MTV would have you contemplate. Their single "Beachcomber" has them at their most "them," nostalgia displacing any punk credo that might otherwise be detected.

Critic's Notebook

Overheard in the crowd: "If it's not on vinyl, I don't wanna hear it." ... "Hey Real Estate, can you up the price on my house?" ... "Hide yo' wife, hide yo kids..." about 30 times, from a guy dressed up like this. Nice.

Cover Me (Slowly)
Wash Off
Desire Lines
Hazel St.
Memory Boy
Rainwater Cassette Exchange
Don't Cry
Nothing Ever Happened
He Would Have Laughed
Strange Lights

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