Experimental rock has never caught on with the general public. Much of it, with its modernist sublimity, its valorization of the ugly and difficult, sought to push the boundaries and shock listeners out of their complacency.
But rock music has always had a strong experimental strain. As early as the 1950s, Link Wray was breaking the mold established by Chuck Berry and Little Richard. In the ’60s, musicians like Captain Beefheart, the Red Krayola and the Velvet Underground began to incorporate the innovations of the postwar European avant-garde, free jazz, minimalism, etc. into blues and other traditional genres. Experimentation was defiantly anti-pop: Captain Beefheart was the antithesis of the Beach Boys.
It’s old news that the age of experimentation is over. Now, a half-hour “free form freak-out” seems less radical than quaintly reminiscent of a more wide-eyed (or bleary-eyed, as the case may be) era. Wild eclecticism is the new experimentation. No one needs to go out on a limb and create anymore. The sounds are ready-made; it’s our prerogative to mix and match in ignorance of the original context or significance. It’s been said that music has become disconnected from its cultural moment, and has thus lost its meaning. Sound has become merely sound.
Pavement, the greatest of the “postmodern” rock bands, imbued this loss with pathos, a nostalgia for a time when rock music wasn’t promiscuous and empty. Deerhoof, by contrast, rejoices in meaninglessness. But its sound is so alluring that it almost makes one forget the nihilism at its core.
Listening to Deerhoof’s new album “Offend Maggie” is like being on a roller coaster ride through a sort of musical candyland. One moment you are in Beefheart-land, the next you’re in Stravinsky – or Beach Boys- or Fahey-land. There are climaxes of Wagnerian grandiosity that are comically deflated by the fact that they last only a few seconds. You can hear the colorings of late 20th-century composers such as Ligeti or Messiaen. The playing field is level; all of these influences flicker in and out at random. And what’s astonishing is that it usually sounds really good.
Most of this complex music is played by the two guitarists John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez. Their choppy, robotic riffs and melodic lines bounce off each other and anchor the band’s sound throughout its schizophrenic changes. The drummer Greg Saunier, with his explosive fills, his broad rubato and throbbing bass drum, is like an even wilder Keith Moon. Satomi Matsuzaki adds high-pitched Japanese-English babytalk to the mix.
Deerhoof is avant-garde music for 21st century attention spans. Or, more precisely, it is the formerly unthinkable and now quite prevalent fusion (Animal Collective, Of Montreal) of avant-garde experimentalism and pop music. In the past, this would have been like mixing oil and water, because the avant-garde was by definition a rejection of the tyranny of pop. Now that these are merely genres, choices emptied of significance, allegiance to one or the other would be an anachronism.
If you can embrace the notion that the legacy of avant-garde rock and earnest experimentation is a thing of the past, merely one of any number of tame styles for musicians to appropriate at random, listening to Deerhoof could very well be a transcendent experience.