As so-called “indie rock” has moved closer to the mainstream, commercial center of the music business over the past few decades, a stubborn and self-assured cohort of bands has remained stalwart in its commitment to avant-garde sounds that refuse to pander to whatever conventions happen to be in vogue at the moment. Like Xiu Xiu and Blonde Redhead, Deerhoof has managed to enjoy a long career while maintaining the integrity of the boundary-pushing style that has defined its music all along. On La Isla Bonita, Deerhoof’s 12th album, the band doesn’t seem to be reaching out to new listeners so much as assuring longtime fans that they still know how to thrown down and get weird.
What’s remarkable about this new offering is how the band optimizes a modest set of tools — most songs blend three or four instruments rather than layering studio-produced barrages of tracking — in order to assemble playfully blended assaults of noise. Although on first listen the album seems to be wandering all over the map, a few well-chosen points of consistency link the tracks together: percussion that starts off simply and builds throughout the song; taut guitar ostinatos that move in and out of the foreground; and vocals that repeat and riff on a bare-bones lyric in a way that sounds witty and intelligently devised. Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier has described the album as “our late-capitalist American version of waltzing into oblivion,” and if it takes a few spins to grasp hold of this concept, the reward is a haunting meditation on — and resistance to — the blasé, apathetic acceptance of superficiality that undergirds the majority of pop culture today.
In light of Saunier’s statement, it’s possible to read the album’s title not only as a cheeky Madonna reference, but also as a dig at America — that beautiful, often frivolous origin-point of much globalized culture — as well as an exit route promising a vacation from that space. “Last Fad” exemplifies this tension most clearly. The lyrics are only four lines long: “Baseball is cancelled / E.T. is running late / New from America / I cover all of the walls with sad dollars. Ta-da!” The song thus invokes two touchstones of U.S. culture — professional sports and blockbuster films — before sarcastically proclaiming them “new” and then gesturing toward the excessive (and, one might say, sad) streams of capital that enable and remunerate those products. The final “Ta-da!” sounds depressingly ironic, as though the speaker, inhabiting the voice of a studio exec or marketing guru, believes her work to resemble an innovative magic trick. The song’s instrumentation achieves a similarly conflictual, unsettling effect: Opening with a lockstep, Franz Ferdinand-esque beat provided by drums and two guitars, the song grows progressively more complex, detonating into a disorienting counterpoint between the percussion and the intertwined guitar melodies. That vacillation between synchronization and radical discord complements the lyrics’ evocation of late-capitalist culture and society.
If songs like “Last Fad” don’t necessarily make for easy listening, the album’s lean structure renders the whole production more palatable. Each of the ten tracks clocks in at just over three minutes, exploding efficiently and then evaporating just as quickly. The four-plus-minute closer “Oh Bummer”, therefore, feels like a luxurious, leg-stretching excursion. Like “Last Fad”, the song opens minimally with a tightly controlled guitar groove and then adds reverberant screeches with each verse. The song takes the form of a weary love letter from an emperor trying to convince a partner that, while in power, he “lied to everyone but you”. The repeating phrase “All of the bodies, all of the minds / To the money I was true” gives way to a clash between guitar distortions that, scraping against one another, sound like buildings crumbling down. The final, desperate wail makes for a fitting punctuation mark on a text that calls its surrounding culture out for its complicity in a variety of societal problems. Deerhoof’s ability to channel its musical chops toward sharp political critique — while retaining moments of whimsical release — explains how the band has survived for 20 years and proves that it possesses the ingenuity to thrive for many decades to come.