24 Feb 2011

Postmodernism as Topic #1: Deerhoof's Multicultural Metropolis

Pop music, or perhaps pop post-Beatles, is an inherently postmodern art-form. Specific areas of pop music go even further in embodying the idea of postmodern art: hip hop especially, with its reliance on borrowings, recomposition and the playful combining of fragments from multifarious musical sources, but also most dance music, along with a lot of electronic music in general. This is an art-form for which the delineation of meaning depends on the shared ability of both artist and listener to navigate a multi-genre, multi-cultural network of aural signs and symbols, one which stretches back through musical history and across physical and digital space. Yet this seemingly complex process of signification is too culturally ingrained within the pop community to be much reflected upon. Such postmodern tools of meaning production are used, as I’ve tried to argue many times in this blog, to articulate ideas outside themselves, beyond any reflexive compulsion to understand the systems behind the operation of these tools. Pop music can ‘mean’ too potently and too effectively to waste much time exploring how it comes to ‘mean’ in the first place.

There are some bands, of course, that explore the idea of postmodernism more explicitly, expressing ideas like cultural relativism, pastiche, collage and consumerism at a more conscious level. Beck is an obvious example, as is Frank Zappa, while others might include mash-up artists like Girl Talk or self-conscious cover bands like Nouvelle Vague. Two contemporary bands in particular, who have both released new albums recently, have consciously constructed unique sounds that simultaneously express and examine the postmodern artistic condition, and it is this aspect of their music that I will focus on in my reviews. The bands in question are The Go! Team and Deerhoof.
Deerhoof’s sound, stripped to its most fundamental, expresses an opposition between two contrasting elements: John Dieterich’s harsh, complicated guitar tracks and Satomi Matsuzaki’s gentle, ‘naïve’ vocals. All other aspects of the group’s music expand from the idea that these two elements are irreconcilable, constantly suggestive of a tension or ‘culture clash’ even. At heart then, Deerhoof’s music mediates between contrasts, and the band embellish this idea by pushing each individual element to its extreme. The ‘child-like’ vocals are often accompanied by ‘playground rhyme’ lyrics and word games. Individual riffs and melodies are rendered super-distinctive to emphasise their discrete identities. Dynamics are pushed to extremes, tempi and time signatures change suddenly between sections, melodic shapes are written gigantic - the extreme ‘angularity’ of one lick might jar all the more with the extreme ‘horizontality’ of an adjacent one. There is also a constant tension between the (usually vocal) tendency towards hyper-tunefulness and the (usually guitar-driven) tendency towards real discord.

Such moment-to-moment extremes of contrast perpetuate Deerhoof’s individual songs, as well as functioning across the structure of each album. However, the way in which these contrasting elements are woven into self-enclosed song structures, especially on the relatively ‘poppy’ and accessible new album Deerhoof vs. Evil, does not suggest a desire to express conflict, neither does it make some over-earnest gesture towards a modernist critique of structure. This is where Deerhoof defy all accusations of ‘prog’, along with comparisons to those equally technically spectacular bands who attempt to maximalise the language of rock music for some lofty, purist ends. Their approach to the myriad extremes of gesture which they combine is not an earnest one - for one thing, the raw, ‘untrained’ sonority of Matsuzaki’s voice, and the extremes of simplicity which her melodies and lyrics often encompass, would undermine the kind of avant-garde spirit that fuels ‘serious’ modern jazz groups and meandering, ‘virtuoso’ math rock bands. But it also falls short of outright irreverence, the kind which is instilled in the poly-stylist antics of Liverpool’s a.P.A.t.T. and other such ensembles.

Listening to a Deerhoof album, and Deerhoof vs. Evil in particular, is instead like travelling through a contemporary urban environment. Their style represents a superabundance of stimuli, but one that is suspended in a totally functional balance. Natural and artificial textures are viewed in quick succession - concrete, steel, brick, coloured glass, aluminium and lurid plastics. Architecture varies from old to new, neo-classical to brutalist, each structure giving way to the next, blending in or obstructing, complimenting or violently clashing. Multiculturalism is prevalent, cultural identities recontextualised, transformed, combined or assimilated within the city’s social ‘melting point’. Alleyways are glimpsed to different quarters and neighbourhoods, monuments appear and disappear from view, street fashion tribes proliferate within the habitat of a single block and are obliterated at the next turning. And most of all, the city is adorned with, or littered by, signs - not just words, but colours and symbols, the complex but ever-familiar semiology of municipal bureaucracy. And on top of that, the infinitely subtle play of meaning in advertising, the blaring of music from shopfronts, the intuitive mess of popular culture in constant reference, words on street signs, words on T-shirts, words on bus maps, words on flyers trampled underfoot. 

Deerhoof’s success in exploring these ideas comes from the appropriateness of their musical language as a viewfinder around these disparate elements. Their easy use of functional and melodic dissonance, smooth and unobtrusive use of complicated rhythms and time changes, and the kind of rhetorical and gestural extremes possible from perfect technical ability, allows them to work violent shifts into musical structures, and make patterns out of irregularities. The fluid and intricately woven complexities of Deerhoof’s music thereby appreciates and represents the fluid interweaving of all the equally ostensibly irredeemable features of the contemporary, liberal, capitalist urban environment. It demonstrates to the modern listener the depth of our ability to draw specific threads of meaning through a garish collage of the obtuse and intelligible.

Deerhoof - Super Duper Rescue Heads ! by Polyvinyl Records

It is to this end that many of Matsuzaki’s lyrics seem like they’ve been pulled at random from some unknown source - a billboard or screenplay or pamphlet or children’s book. It is also to this end that she can write songs in Japanese, or (as on opener ‘Qui Dorm, Només Somia’) Catalan, and not disrupt in any way the effect of the album as a whole on an English-speaking audience. We learn to read the signs; new meanings are drawn through these blank phonemes, the very process of semiotics is represented as topic. Behind each distinct riff, which Dieterich or Ed Rodriguez might light upon for just six seconds in the middle of a song, there extends the same many-doored corridor of meaning that we learn to access instantly and unconsciously when we see a road sign or brand name in the street. But in the context of the song, these meanings are put into play with the adjacent sonorities, the concurrent words, the motivic melodies and the overall structure, and we thereby access the kind of subtle meaning combinations fundamental to the postmodern conception of culture in multi-cultural, commercialised urban centres.

This kind of play has always been in operation in Deerhoof’s work, although terrain does vary by album. 2008's Offend Maggie, for example, was far more black-and-white in its environment - a city in newsprint. It was Deerhoof’s ‘guitar rock album’, if such a label could be permitted for such a guitar-centric band. Deerhoof vs. Evil entails a shift back to a greater variety of textures and even of stylistic topics, made possible through the extended inclusion of synths and new guitar timbres. This more multi-coloured palette suggests close comparisons with 2007's Friend Opportunity, while the succinctness of the album as a whole (no ten-minute atonal odysseys!) makes this possibly Deerhoof’s most immediate album on balance, and definitely one of my favourites. The expanded palette allows further contrasts to be thrown along the dimensions of stylistic semantics; ‘No One Asked To Dance’ evokes a (Pixies-esque) kind of Mexican Gothic, while ‘Must Fight Current’ pushes further South still, with its feverish bossa nova. The band navigate frantically through ghettos of Velocity Girl-esque shoegaze on ‘The Merry Barracks’, death metal on ‘Secret Mobilization’, and post-AnCo chill on ‘Almost Everyone, Almost Always’, while evoking similarly-minded bands such as Xiu Xiu (on the spectacular ‘Super Duper Rescue Heads !’) and the Dirty Projectors (in many places but most strikingly on the album’s first track). ‘Let’s Dance The Jet’, a Mikis Theodorakis cover, is a clear relation of Milk Man’s muscular ‘Giga Dance’, and the invitation to dance seems to extend through much of the unnervingly groovy second half of the album.

All in all, the band’s ‘multi-cultural’ tendencies have never been more pronounced. But they have also never been so harmonious; the outlook throughout is skewed towards sunny pop geniality, a genuinely warm attitude towards the listener, even while actual pop structure may be disrupted, exploded, refracted or - in the case of ‘The Merry Barracks’ - seemingly inverted to create what feels like the photo negative of a Britpop anthem. These rainbow rays, when allowed to shine through, on songs like ‘Behold A Marvel In The Darkness’ reinforce the impression that Deerhoof retain the most optimistic attitude towards the contemporary postmodern stage that they both reconstruct and inhabit. For an outfit that specialise in noise, discord, disruption and ‘weirdness’, it is actually remarkable what a total absence of darkness there is in their work.

buy it

Deerhoof - The Merry Barracks by All Tomorrows Parties