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Deerhoof - Friendly Opportunity Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 May 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    8
sound:    9
release year:    2007
label:    Kill Rock Stars
reviewed by:    Matt Fink

ImageThough experimental rock has been bubbling under the artifice of mainstream rock ever since Nirvana brought Sonic Youth and a generation of underground bands to the fringes of commercial acceptance, it’s possible that no other time has been better for avant-garde musicians than the current moment. How else to explain the strange ubiquity of Deerhoof, an ineffably odd San Francisco trio that has opened for everyone from Radiohead and Wilco to the Roots despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that their music has adhered to few pop music conventions over their 12-year career. Verses, choruses, guitar solos, vocal melodies – nothing is nailed down in their constantly shifting sonic palette, and all sound as if they are jostling for position at the same time. And yet somehow, out of the chaos of flailing drum rolls, grunting guitar lines and vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki’s syllabic coos, emerges something that is profoundly endearing, with songs brimming with energy and innovation at every turn while still sounding remarkably catchy. With Friend Opportunity, Deerhoof might have made their most immediately rewarding release.

Marking the band’s return as a trio, with guitarist Chris Cohen departing to become the main songwriter in the Curtains, the eighth Deerhoof album in many ways is the opposite of their 2005 breakthrough, The Runners Four. Gone is that album’s epic live-in-studio sprawl and dizzying eclecticism, here replaced with a leaner and more focused 10-song outing that showcases their increasing willingness to balance their noisier tendencies with big choruses and palatable melodies. Though it kicks off with a typically spastic burst of drumming and swirling organ fills, opener “The Perfect Me” comes together with Matsuzaki’s perfectly-meowed vocal and a gliding chorus melody, making for one of the band’s most instantly engaging tracks. Even more infectious is “+81,” with a digitally constructed marching drum corps leading into grunting guitar riffs, sparkling synths and the most deliciously nonsensical chorus (something like “choo choo ch’ choo beep beep”) of any Deerhoof song to date. If Deerhoof is ever going to make a dent on commercial radio (or have a song chosen for a commercial), that one-two punch is their best bet. That said, Friend Opportunity is still unmistakably a Deerhoof record. The time signatures still stop, start, and shift into extra gears without notice, the only real difference being that this time the textures are a bit smoother and the production is a bit cleaner. Though they’ve flirted with lushly arranged tracks before, the dainty strings and classy piano lines of “Whither the Invisible Birds” breaks new ground, providing a heavenly backdrop for Matsuzaki’s fragile vocal. More typical is “The Galaxist,” one of the band’s proggier tracks, built on top of a plaintive bed of carefully-picked acoustic guitar and Matsuzaki’s girlish coos, with sludgy doom riffs entering and fading under a carpet of tinkling electric guitar jangles. Strangest of all is “Kidz are So Small,” Matsuzaki’s experiment with U.K. garage rap, wrapping massively thudding beats, string samples and plinky sound effects in constantly shifting tempos and cleverly percussive vocal parts.

Even so, this is a slightly less quirky Deerhoof. Matsuzaki’s eternal fixation on fruit and fluffy animals is largely gone, as she has moved on to more existential concerns. Even so, she’s still one of music’s most ingeniously odd lyricists and distinctive vocalists, putting her unmistakable fingerprint on every track, from the stunningly gorgeous ballad that emerges from the psych-lounge groove of “Choco Fight” to the organ-led sing-along of “Matchbook Seeks Maniac.” When drummer Greg Saunier takes over the mic for the churning power chord riff-rock of “Cast Off Crown,” you hardly notice, as his soft falsetto makes a suitable foil for Matsuzaki’s innocent croon.

At the end of the day, like all Deerhoof records, Friend Opportunity is the sound of what a band can accomplish with no self-imposed boundaries and endless enthusiasm. And despite the fact that there are currently more variants of music available than ever before, theirs is music that will never be mistaken for any other band. After 12 years they show no signs of running out of new ideas and new directions for their constantly evolving pop experiment, retaining their abstract edge while incorporating occasional nods toward pop conventions. In the end, they’ve made another album that only they could make.

The most hi-fi release they’ve completed, despite the fact that it was recorded entirely on a home computer, Friend Opportunity is arguably the first Deerhoof album that emphasizes lushness over the typically jagged edges of their previous work. That’s not to say that there aren’t some raw moments, as Saunier’s drums and guitarist John Dietrich’s playing are often just as obtuse and vivid as before, but the textures are just a bit brighter and crisper, making this the least abrasive album in their catalog.

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