VIDEO: Deerhunter, "Strange Lights"
Music is more or less a mess of tensions — between two notes, one chord and the next, melody and harmony, tone and noise, rhythm and sound, lyrics and musical mood, and so on. But if you asked for a favorite, I’d say tone and noise. It’s maybe the most “rock” of them all, too, given the weird nature of the genre’s key instrument, the electric guitar; the ability to amplify soundwaves comes at the price of distorting them, muddying them up. Most ignore that fundamental irony; some can’t get past their own nihilism and just start noise bands; a few others try exploring somewhere in the middle but come up short or self-satisfied or both. Atlanta’s Deerhunter aren’t the new Sonic Youth, or whatever, at least not yet. (Right now, anyway, Sonic Youth are the new Sonic Youth.) But between their fantastic Cryptograms album and their new Fluorescent Grey EP, which is even better (both are on Kranky), they’re thinking of themselves along those lines, as a pop band unafraid to sabotage themselves, to let the instruments take over and resonate, reverberate, kick, yell, and scream in all their alternating current glories.
It’s the dud of duds to talk about honesty or purity in pop, especially since all critics have seen The Matrix by now and think they’re obliged to point out how everything everywhere is just a construct (dude). Either way, a song like Deerhunter’s “Wash Off” tells a good rock-and-roll story: the buzzing guitar amps and disjointed beats and piano vamps, the tense haze of unintelligible vocal reverb and atonal guitar stabs set to drum ’n’ bass motorik, the huge messy impossibly catchy release, the whole thing apparently a tale of ardent youth and the loss of it. “I was 16,” sings Bradford Cox. Another one, “Like New,” might be the best Coldplay song ever written, a soaring ballad devoured by guitar strums stuck interminably in echo. Once again the lyrics are masked — all we get is a command, or a wish: “Be like new.”
A pop band like Deerhunter (who come to the ICA next month) can be incredibly frustrating, however. They can and do write huge songs, but they always futz with them or bury them in an album of guitar drones, and for some music fans that must seem self-indulgent.
The same cycle of infatuation and disgust plagued the UK shoegazer scene in the early ’90s, of which London’s Seefeel were a vaunted but mostly tangential member. On Quique (Too Pure) — their 1993 debut, which has been reissued this year with a second disc of alternate mixes and remixes — the techno-rock band set slow-morphing tundra-like soundscapes to motorik drum machines and unrushed dub bass lines. Guitar is present in looped samples, and occasionally voices glide atop the analog kling-klang, wordless (“Plainsong”) and/or worldless (“Industrious”). Seefeel weren’t a traditional guitar-based shoegazer band like My Bloody Valentine or Ride or Slowdive. They inherited the same tone-versus-noise struggle, though, and — less hindered by the electro-acoustic condundrum — they abstracted the struggle into something more impressionistic.
There aren’t the inches to speculate why Deerhunter’s “Octet” drone oscillates like Seefeel’s “Climactic Phase 3,” but with better drum sounds. Or whether Deerhunter aren’t celebrating themselves — as so many shoegazer bands were said to have been doing — so much as celebrating electric rock music, wishing no fame for themselves, only to be rock’s real mouthpiece. It might just be good drug music, end of story. Still, with Deerhunter especially, it’s nice to romanticize again.
DEERHUNTER | Institute of Contemporary Art, 100 Northern Ave, Boston | July 12 | 617.478.3103.