Deerhunter’s manic dance with praise and punk

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Deerhunter’s subversively outrageous frontman Bradford Cox (center) craves the spotlight
but eschews fame. Deerhunter’s subversively outrageous frontman Bradford Cox (center) craves the spotlight but eschews fame.

Deerhunter’s second album, Cryptograms, made it a household name in indie rock circles. Released in early 2007 by the legendary and long-running Kranky record label, the album features an appealing mix of sprawling and dreamy guitar sounds, anchored by slow-building, bass-heavy grooves and distorted, distantly cool vocals. It sounds almost as if the Atlanta-based quintet is working its way through a checklist of beloved sounds and styles: energetic post-punk riffs, gorgeous shoegaze textures, thoughtful art-rock attitudes, and wry glam posturing. The band quickly ascended from cult favorite status to a high-profile success story, touring larger venues, joining numerous festival lineups, and finding itself on the receiving end of lots of critical praise and enthusiastic adoration.

Unlike many of its peers, success and attention didn’t seem to sit comfortably with Deerhunter. Frontman Bradford Cox—who has an unusual appearance due to suffering from Marfan Syndrome, and who describes himself as either queer or asexual, depending on which interview you read—is a wild, unpredictable presence in the band’s live shows. Cox’s performance antics have included dressing in drag, dousing himself in fake blood, and taking a sarcastic and occasionally abrasive attitude towards the audience. He’s had a strange reaction to his moderate level of fame, and over the years has given some of the most interesting (and reliably entertaining) interviews in 21st century rock music.

Deerhunter avoids being pigeonholed as a safe, commercially acceptable band, ready for car-commercials and suburban lifestyle-soundtracking. “I hate indie culture,” Cox told Pitchfork in 2011. “I am not an indie rock musician—I don’t even know what the fuck that means.”

Over the years the band members seemed desperate to reassert themselves as punks, as unpredictable and potentially dangerous outsiders. In a later interview with Pitchfork, Cox proclaimed, “I am a terrorist. As a homosexual, my job is simply to sodomize mediocrity.”

Protestations and posturing aside, Deerhunter’s music has remained reliably appealing and accessible over the years. There are no anthemic climaxes or shout-along choruses, yet Deerhunter’s sound is almost unerringly pretty, even as it shifts from gentle, hushed moments to dense, extended crescendos.

2008’s Microcastle and 2010’s Halcyon Digest continued to highlight Deerhunter’s strengths, and though its formula varies very little, the band’s aesthetic has never become over-polished or diluted in quality.

Cox and drummer/keyboardist Moses Archuleta are the only two consistent members since the band’s inception, though guitarist Lockett Pundt has long been a prominent presence in the group. Despite the shifting membership, the music has grown increasingly confident, cohesive, and consistent.

While Deerhunter cites experimental krautrock groups like Faust as formative influences, its most recent effort, 2013’s Monomania, is filled with charming grooves that are far more reminiscent of T. Rex or The Strokes.

Cox is even more prolific in his solo career—releasing three records under the name Atlas Sound, and offering dozens of free downloads of archival and unreleased material. (2009’s Logos, featuring collaborations with Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox and Stereolab’s Lætitia Sadier, is the strongest of the bunch.) The side project has also given him free rein to indulge his wilder impulses, outside of the democracy of the group. At a Minneapolis concert two years ago, a ski-masked Cox responded to an audience member’s sarcastic request for a cover of The Knack’s “My Sharona” by playing the song for a full hour. Guitarist Pundt has also released solo material, under the name Lotus Plaza.

Deerhunter performs at The Jefferson Theater on February 4, and Invisible Hand opens.

 

Turn here

This weekend, Left and Right returns to Charlottesville. From its lowly roots as a largely forgettable band of current and former UVA students (whose band name was presumably derived from the fact that all four members were UTS bus drivers), Left and Right spent several years improving its repertoire and honing its craft until it became one of the most reliably excellent bands in town.

The mix of jangling, high-energy rock riffs with wry, confessional lyrics, is a style that owes more than a little to early ’90s titans like Dinosaur, Jr. and Superchunk. The band relocated to Philadelphia en masse last August, but not before playing a solid series of farewell shows at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar in which the quality and intensity seemed to improve with every performance.

Friday’s concert at the Tea Bazaar will be its first show in town since its departure, with the occasion being a three-day tour of Central Virginia, along with two other like-minded bands: Harrisonburg’s Lil Huffy (which has also played a number of impressive shows over the past few months) and the Richmond-based group Snowy Owls.

What is your favorite college band? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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