Kill Rock Stars (2008)
Deerhoof has a knack for pissing people off. Maybe it's Satomi Matsuzaki's dazed, toddler-ish vocals that do the trick, or perhaps it has something to do with the band's penchant for sounds that fall just a tad short of digestible. Whatever your immediate reaction to Deerhoof's music might be, however, it's tough not to give the San Francisco-based quartet credit for its uniqueness. You'd be hard-pressed to find a successful rock band today that's more committed to its own idiosyncrasies.
Early in Deerhoof's career, this meant that the band's music wasn't always palatable. With time, however, Matsuzaki, guitarist John Dietrich and drummer Greg Saunier have shifted their musical emphasis toward squeezing all the knotty impenetrability of their earlier work into neat little packages with bows and shiny wrapping paper. Such efforts at accessibility dominated last year's Friend Opportunity, which was a confusing jumble of riffs and ideas that somehow still managed to be compelling and even thrilling at times. Friend Opportunity worked best when the band curbed its tendency to fishtail wildly between musical lanes and focused on writing songs.
Lucky for us, it seems Deerhoof has turned this newfound virtue into a mantra on its latest outing, Offend Maggie. Where Friend Opportunity's playfulness verged on vacuity at times, Offend Maggie tempers its occasional flippancy with generous helpings of drama. The album's leadoff track, "The Tears of Music and Love," sports a nasty, heavy little recurring riff that grounds the song's excursions in a meaty core.
Indeed, Deerhoof finds plenty of opportunity to let its rock flag fly on Offend Maggie, and it does so with surprising aplomb. Perhaps this is thanks to the addition of second guitarist Ed Rodriguez to the band's ranks--it certainly seems here that Deerhoof has polished its riffsmithing skills. This is especially evident on songs like "My Purple Past" and finale "Jagged Fruit"--both songs boast cranky, tension-packed passages that might lead one to believe that someone in the band has consistent trouble deciding which side of the bed to wake up on.
To an extent, Deerhoof is showing off its heavy side on Offend Maggie. The band wouldn't be itself, however, if it didn't indulge in all manner of temperamental gymnastics and it certainly delivers here in that respect. There are a few quieter moments--"Numina O" languishes in jazzy somnolence and "Family of Others" is as mellow and harmonious as anything I've heard from Deerhoof. The band's sense of humor and mischief remains intact, especially on the almost entirely nonsensical "Basket Ball Get Your Groove Back" and the Tom Waits-like "This Is God Speaking."
Offend Maggie finds Deerhoof finally bringing its multiple split personalities under control. In many ways, this is the best possible thing the band could have done; this album has all the makings of an opinion-changer. If you've heard Deerhoof but were put off by the confusion and occasional inanity of its earlier work, the band's latest might just convince you that its music is worth reconsideration. Moreover, if you're a Deerhoof virgin, there might be no better means of self-deflowerment than Offend Maggie.
Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band
Merge Records (2008)
In 1939, MGM released a film called Ninotchka, starring Greta Garbo as an icy Soviet agent. Playing on the star's notoriously dour demeanor, advertisements for the film proclaimed "Garbo Laughs!" on every promotional poster. Conor Oberst's new self-titled album is his Ninotchka, a surprising burst of glee in an otherwise heavy career. Watch the video for the single "Souled Out!!!" and you will see Oberst smile and laugh so many times that you may wonder if this flirtatious, lei-wearing, mop-haired jokester is the same man who once inspired legions of pale and emaciated suburban preteens to comb their hair into their eyes and cry in front of their girlfriends. That's not to say Oberst has left his soul-searching behind; in lieu of wallowing in eyeliner tears, Oberst has found the answer to his adolescent angst in running away. Fixated on escape, Conor Oberst is not as much the proverbial love letter to the open road as a desperate message left on its answering machine at 3 am: an obsessive, almost religious ode to breaking free.
Conor, no longer shielded by his carefully crafted Bright Eyes persona, sings about growing up, moving along and never looking back. Oberst's journeys have helped him forget the years of whining about drugs and fame and crushes and parents, but he yearns for more, for the screaming fangirls to accept him as a grownup. He's trying a little too hard to win us over. Every song is perfectly on message--run away, things will change, you can leave your adolescence behind. There is no hint of the irony that is implicit in this claim, which equates maturity with the cowardly act of avoidance. The upbeat "Sausalito" claims, "there's no sorrow that the sun's not gonna heal;" the melancholy, allusion-laden "Lenders in the Temple," forgoes the typical Bright Eyes condemnation of the emptiness and inescapability of modern culture, declaring it's your own damn fault if you can't get out; "Moab" sums up the album's almost religious devotion to escape: "There's nothing that the road cannot heal." Oberst seeks personal and professional validation as he pleads for the listener's unquestioning conversion to his cheesy, romantic vision of a new nomadic way of life.
While the album's neediness is not much of a change from Oberst's Bright Eyes days, the sound has evolved into something surprisingly listenable, even catchy. Oberst's last album as Bright Eyes, Cassadaga, was Bright Eyes's denouement--an orchestral culmination of every dramatic, hyperemo vocal and grand instrumental arrangement from Oberst's 12 years performing under the name. What has emerged in its wake with Conor Oberst is a clean, simple, rootsy sound. Recorded in Mexico with a hodgepodge group of friends and acquaintances collectively called The Mystic Valley Band, the album is unapologetically and refreshingly rough around the edges. As Oberst told The New York Times, the record was recorded on 16-track tape, "the first record I've made in probably five years that hasn't been inside a computer at some point."
Conor Oberst has left behind the solipsistic, bratty wunderkind he once was. The result is a tired thirty-something who has divorced himself from his adolescent tendencies not through acceptance, but through the easy avoidance provided by escape. Not completely grownup, not completely optimistic, Conor Oberst nevertheless has found a sound that is evocative, earnest and uncluttered.
Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band will be playing at the Roxy in Boston on November 5th. For more New England tour dates see www.conoroberst.com.