(Kill Rock Stars; 2007)
By Mark Abraham | 18 January 2007
Welcome back, Deerhoof; Deerhoof, I still miss you.
Shoot. Excepting Sung Tongs (2004), I’ve never felt so conflicted about an album I actually like. I love the happy-to-have-hands-on-instruments Deerhoof of The Man, the King, the Girl (1997), the snarky yet cutely precise Deerhoof of Holdypaws (1999), the Deerhoof with the balls to open with an epigraph before falling into the might-as-well-be-wordless epiphany of Reveille (2002), the Deerhoof that punctured with the specificity of electrolysis on the étude-ilicious Apple O’ (2003). This is none of those. Of course, four more Reveilles wouldn’t have worked either, so what am I complaining about?
Blame it on 2004 in general, when it seemed that several of my favorite experimental, severely-niche bands anamorphed. For Deerhoof, it was The Milkman, an attempt to achieve hybridity between straightforward pop and Deerhoofian absurdity. Unlike the Animal Collective, who were far more relaxed and hesitant in their quest for pop formula on Sung Tongs (and therefore more successful), The Milkman trained its sights too fixedly on what it was supposed to be. It’s not a fun album, and that’s enough to make it the relative nadir of the Deerhoof experience. Fortunately, 2005’s The Runners Four solved its predecessor’s stylistic problems by throwing some punk lighter fluid all over the guitar tones to herald the band’s newfound elasticity. Unfortunately, it then proceeded to run about ten too many victory laps around you, kicking sand in the face of your satiated expectations until you were all, “fine, you win.”
So, Friend Opportunity: realization of Deerhoof’s goal to unite the absurd and the straight-faced without losing the kick that made them so awesome in the first place? Or reductive album that is more fun for the albums like Braniac’s Bonsai Superstar (1994), Clinic’s Internal Wrangler (2000), and Enon’s High Society (2002) that it speaks to and recalls, rather than for its own merits?
“Deerhoof, I still miss you”: I’m well aware that many pundits are framing this as Deerhoof’s tightest album, and it probably is, at least insofar as the recording is punchy and the sequencing well-edited. And, let’s be clear, all of the songs I’m about to make fun of are perfectly great indie tracks. Where I get caught, however, is at the point where this doesn’t seem so much a pop internalization of Deerhoof’s unique talent as it is a kind of album-costume where they adorn the talents of other bands. Bands which influenced the Deerhoof sound, certainly—spazz-core heads unite!—but still, bands that aren’t Deerhoof. Which is a long way of wondering, I guess, whether this album really required Deerhoof to record it at all.
The wild funk percussion and prog chordage of opener “The Perfect Me,” its lovely transition from a choral chorus intro into that Poly Styrene round-out; all of that is brilliant. But the thing isn’t really wonky in any meaningful way; for all of the post-punk playfulness it recalls, it might as well be the Breeders with a pitch-bent vocal filter and Ray Cooper on speed. Same thing with “Believe E.S.P.” The music sounds like a borrowed Rock Giant niche excursion—you know, one of those tracks Iron Maiden would world out on, except the riff that underpins the entirety of Deerhoof’s song is like one measure of a far more ornate track. On the other hand, Satomi Matsuzaki’s melody is incredibly nuanced here, so even though some of the playfulness is a bit stilted (my thought: “unleash already”) the track pulls through. Other obstacles include the ’60s/‘90s Frankenmurmur of “The Galaxist,” which would be pretty if the whole thing didn’t come off a little like a bizarro world’s “From a Distance”; “Whither the Invisible Birds” (they’re likely asleep—I was); and half of “Kidz are So Small,” where I love the weird parts in the middle, and the way the track keeps slowing up and speeding down, but hate the “If I were a man and you a dog” bits and the fact that the percussion sounds like it was programmed from pre-fab sequencer patches. I highly suspect I’ll like a lot of these songs more when I see them live, divorced from some of the not-so-tricky studio trickery.
Or the short version of all this: it isn’t safe to claim Deerhoof as your favorite experimental band anymore when they just ain’t that experimental. Fuck, given the shit Cee-Lo pulled, they should just produce the next Amerie single.
“Deerhoof, I love you”: “+81” shouts out some wonderful horns before John Dietrich lets out a gorgeous guitar riff that sums up the entire history of garage rock. Greg Saunier rolls his kit, and Matsuzaki enters, her awesome sense of melody running free. On an album that often constrains her left turns, “+81” has her all over the map, to everyone’s pleasure. “Choco Fight” squirrels compressed organs and harpsichords into a pulsating mess over which Saunier slaps his snares. The track keeps breaking for quiet interludes; Matsuzaki is jamming on nonsense; the backing is constantly morphing; and the whole thing really meshes well. After about four tracks dominated by synth patches, “Cast Off Crown” reminds us that the band actually has a guitarist as Dietrich goes nuts during the intro. The rest of the track is a wild flurry of odd percussion, blips, and guitar strums. “Matchbook Seeks Maniac” begins like a Brit-pop joint before becoming a ballad. It’s the type of normalcy that sort of works for Deerhoof; even on this relatively calm album the juxtaposition is so strange that you get drawn in. That said, the song itself is better for the idea than it is as an actual song.And then: “Look Away,” the closing track, almost redeems what minor faults I find with the rest of the album. This dozen minute track discards the synth trickery and processing so prevalent elsewhere on Friend Opportunity and instead focuses on the instrumental talents of the group, at times sounding like the kind of noise Karate has spent their career trying to achieve. Deitrich’s intricate and lovely guitar figures undulate over Matsuzaki’s throbbing bass and Saunier’s thunderous drum kit, building until the bottom falls out and Matsuzaki begins to sing. In the background flit some sculpted synth runs. About halfway through Dietrich takes a guitar solo. It starts placid enough, but Saunier’s drums start cutting in and out and Dietrich sounds like he’s running through a whole bunch of delay chains. Matsuzaki murmurs like a trumpet, storm noises grow in the background, and finally we get some of Matsuzaki’s one-note keyboard leads. The thing seems to fade away before Deitrich returns with some harsh chords quickly followed by some beautiful solo playing. And the album ends like that, with Dietrich first pulling off his best Marc Ribot impression and then Matsuzaki returning to sing the final verse. It’s a beautiful track because it’s so austere and solemn, but also because it proves that Deerhoof doesn’t require the studio addendums to be simultaneously exhaustive, hilarious, and beautiful, just like any good Deerhoof song is.
So, in general, it’s a really good album. It just might not be a good Deerhoof album. Who knows, though? It’s exactly the sort of album that’s going to gain them a wider audience and give them more cash and cred to do exactly the kinds of experimental stuff I miss, and maybe those of us who still clutch our copies of Reveille like a millennial bible are just behind the times anyway. After all, you can’t fault a band for trying to grow, right? I’ll just enjoy Friend Opportunity and content myself with being mildly concerned about what they’ve grown into.