Deerhoof has always been a band that simultaneously simplifies and complicates. On the one hand, they use a simple language of melody, noise and beat with the basic rock instrumentation drums, guitar and voice. On the other hand, they combine these building blocks into crazy and disorienting constructions of sound. Offend Maggie finds them in a slightly expanded sonic territory compared with their past albums, but it seems that inside of this expansion, Deerhoof’s sophisticated innocence has mellowed somewhat. Just somewhat.
I say “mellowed” because the montage of guitar tones presented here tends toward to the clean and clear rather than the noisy. The guitar work of Ed Rodriguez and John Dieterich is always perfectly articulated. All the different tones seem organic and relatively free of excessive knob-noodling. We hear precise changes from one idea to another, from one world to the next.
The beginning of “My Purple Heart,” for example, is a sparse rock monster riff that gives way to Greg Saunier’s always crazy fills, but after a few repeats, we get to Satomi Matsuzaki’s chirping vocalizations and a set of clean, questioning and slightly dissonant guitar chords. It’s not merely a difference in dynamics; it’s a complete difference in feeling, two opposites yoked together. It makes for exciting listening because you never know what will happen next: If the members of Deerhoof are anything, they are unpredictable.
But what makes that unpredictability even more interesting is that it happens within a self-imposed set of limitations (the simplicities I talked about before). One of the tracks that really surprised me was “Family of Others,” which opens with a bit of ringing dissonance that could almost be an avant-garde experiment from the first half of the 20th century (or a creepy opening sound for a horror movie). Then it gives way to a male choir of vocals that is not quite Beach Boys-like because the harmonies are simpler and less saccharine. This in turn gives way to an acoustic guitar with what I call a traveling sound (i.e., the kind of acoustic guitar you hear in the soundtrack of movies when characters are on a journey: repeated rhythms and arpeggios).
It’s a strange song, and its weirdness is three-fold: in relation to itself, as it jumps from one unlike part to another; in relation to the songs next to it in the album; and in relation to the generic form of rock/pop songs. Because Deerhoof make their music with a purposefully limited set of tools, all this weirdness is that much more emphasized.
“Family of Others” points to another “mellowing” aspect: Deerhoof make more folklike moves in these songs. Don’t get me wrong, they are still electric-guitar magicians, but in some moments their constructions reference folk music in both a traditional and nontraditional sense. “Offend Maggie” opens with a guitar sound that could be some repeated figure from a Scottish reel. And the strange little oddity “This Is God Speaking” seems to transform radio static and repetitive gamelan-like electronic music into a kind of cosmic muzak. (Is muzak our contemporary folk music?)
Offend Maggie’s mellowness is not a lessening of Deerhoof’s strangeness. In fact, the emotional intensity of these songs may be even more pronounced than in songs from the past. But the noises here avoid aggression: There are challenging disharmonies, but the overall feeling is one of peace. This is the sunny side of surreal.