Essential tracks: Deerhoof, an Elliott Smith tribute and Moon Duo

Randall Roberts
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
Deerhoof's cover of 'What Have You Done for Me Lately' is a revelation

Deerhoof, "What Have You Done for Me Lately" (Polyvinyl). The oblong guitar pop of the San Francisco quartet moves in wildly divergent directions depending on variables known only to members Greg Saunier, John Dieterich, Satomi Matsuzaki and Ed Rodriguez — if even them. A group whose rhythms and time signatures on first listen read like a precisely written algebraic equation overtaking a mathematician's chalkboard, Deerhoof has etched a singular line through its two decades as a band.

Enter "What Have You Done for Me Lately," the group's just-issued take on the 1986 Jimmy Jam- and Terry Lewis-penned hit for Janet Jackson. Recorded as a demo by Deerhoof founder-drummer Saunier, the track is a swirling ball of confusion, one whose structure has been subdivided into so many weird measures that it feels on the verge of collapse.

The way Saunier shakes the foundation of the tune, like he's channeling Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler in their '60s free-jazz prime, is a revelation. A synth stabs out that central melody, tracing Jackson's query: "What have you done for me lately?" Where the original version is built on a solid four-on-the-floor beat, though, Saunier loops melody at odd intervals, on the seemingly "wrong" beat while the song's bars race and stumble and try to make sense of it all.

The demo eventually morphed into "Paradise Girls," the first song on Deerhoof's typically inventive 2014 album, "La Isla Bonita." The differences are so vast and curious that few would make the connection. But that invisible bridge exists nonetheless. It offers a platform in which to celebrate the wonder of the creative process and the mazes that turn one set of ideas into a whole other thought altogether.

Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield, "... Sing Elliott Smith" (Ramseur Records). Sometimes a simple idea executed with love and good intentions can be as transformative as a magnum opus. Take the country rock duo's new tribute to the songs of Elliott Smith. Avett, one of the North Carolina-based Avett Bros., and beguiling singer-songwriter-guitarist Mayfield (herself raised as part of a traveling family musical group), honor the work of late songwriter Smith with guitars, voice and the occasional piano and rhythm section.

The artists swap lines and songs, harmonizing through classic and lesser-known Smith tracks, including "Ballad of Big Nothing," "Twilight," "Between the Bars" and "Angel in the Snow." "They say that God makes problems/ Just to see what you can stand," they sing in "Pitseleh" as a banjo traces a gentle counter-melody. "Before you do as the devil pleases/ Do what you love." Throughout this small, good thing, the pair repeatedly take Smith's advice to heart. The album comes out March 17, and the duo will perform songs from it on March 31 at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre.

Moon Duo, "Shadow of the Sun" (Sacred Bones). Like pornography, the loosely defined term "driving music" means different things to different people — but you know it when you hear it. Sounds for rolling down windows while winding through Southern California streets are crucial in the land of clement weather, and some artists execute road tracks better than others. What's essential? Volume, groove, momentum and some unnamed ability to turn otherwise mundane zips down Pico into moments of Mulholland-ian grandeur.

Moon Duo make essential driving music on its third album, "Shadow of the Sun." As on the group's earlier work, the duo of Ripley Johnson (best known for his work as Wooden Shjips) and Sanae Yamada channel the synth-punk sounds of Suicide, the mantra-vibe of "Sister Ray"-style Velvet Underground and the humming thrust of Neu!, the '70s German group that helped forge the sound of electronic dance music.

They revel in the wonder of sonic loops, exploring three- and four-chord patterns while adding and subtracting echoed layers and textures and gliding to eventual conclusion. Whether the runaway-train propulsion of "Night Beat" or "In a Cloud," which swirls with pleasurably relentless repetition, Moon Duo understand how to celebrate movement. By the time the final song, the goth-punk jam "Animal," fades, "Shadow of the Sun" has proved itself a blissful, mesmerizing score to your (road) trip.

Twitter: @LilEdit

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