Deerhoof Friend Opportunity [Kill Rock Stars]

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Rating 8.25

I wouldn’t say that it’s easy to fall asleep listening to Deerhoof’s new album, but I’ve done it four times. I guess when you’re sleepy is not the greatest time to give something a good listen; laying down not the best position to do it in. But anyways, I can safely say that if you fall asleep listening to Deerhoof you will have many terrible nightmares. I recall half-waking up in the midst of the last track, which is kind of like a twelve-minute long Kubrick scene. A single guitar creaks and groans and grasps and moans like a malicious wind-chime. There are all these notes that sound out of tune, paired with these sweet little harmonics, but everything’s kind of topsy-turvy and neither feels right. And then the guitar line picks up steam, and kind of rolls over itself, gaining momentum and acting, well, like a little microbe or something, churning through some plasma or whatever a microbe might churn through. This living thing that is just roiling with creepiness gets faster and louder and then bam, it explodes and you’re on this ship now, and things are creaking and squeaking and rocking. There is a fascinating electronic wind and a portentous calm. As if from a distance, a guitar calls out: what is it saying? What does it want? The notes are sad and isolated, incomplete and yearning, angry too. Fall asleep in one of the spaces and the song could end anywhere…

So yeah, Deerhoof is pretty fucking awesome. If someone asked me to describe the band in one word I’d say “awesome”, or “amazing”, or even “fuck”, but I wouldn’t say “weird”. I think a lot of mofos would do this – call them weird or strange or high on goofballs – and I’m positive that a lot of mofos have been doing this since the band signed to Kill Rock Stars back in 1995. A lot of this perceived wackiness stems from the vocals: Satomi Matsuzaki’s voice is childlike, melodic, and completely unemotional. While Greg Saunier freaks out on drums and John Dietrich does ditto to the guitar, Matsuzaki is sort of bouncing around the songs like a keyboard, saying nothing in particular that makes any sense while maintaining high levels of cuteness and aloofness. This aspect is weird. But overall, Deerhoof makes something much better than weird: let’s call it challenging.

Deerhoof rocks, but they aren’t good party music. Or, to put it more accurately, Deerhoof is not good party music half the time. The opening riff of the album, for example, would do okay. It’s a crushing, synth-laced rock line with some crazy ass drumming that makes you slam the last couple inches of your remaining High Life. But within the first two minutes of the song, there are multiple time signature shifts and at least five separate parts that I counted; devil horns – had you raised them – would not be appropriate. Similarly, “+81” starts with a no-frills blues riff, tacking on what seems like a chorus but is musically very different than the verse, but actually who cares cause the ‘chorus’ is freakin sweet, with these adorable little kid vocals “choo choo choo beep beep” paired with this stoic and alternative guitar line. But once again, the song structure whorls and distorts and after the two minute mark you’re exhausted and drunk and half the party has gone home. There is more complexity in the first two minutes of these songs than there are on some entire albums, or as is the case with Everclear, entire careers.

Friend Opportunity is poised to make a disagreeable first impression. Lack of recognizable song structure makes the individual tracks jagged, and dissimilarity between whole tracks makes the overall listen a bit of a chore. At this surface layer of listening, the music can feel cold and distant – hip maybe, but unaffecting. Songs are crowded and incomplete. Keep listening. During “Believe E.S.P.”, a thunderous bass drum pounds its way through sections of the song, providing a rare opportunity for you to just relax. It’s only after many listens that I discovered the genius of the busy composition wound around the bass beats : two strident and opposing guitars parts coming together, a shifted drumbeat that finally shifts into place. I swear it was like a small epiphany when I finally “saw” the separated pieces lock together into one melody. There are many such “epiphanies” throughout the album, but another personal highlight occurs during “The Galaxist”. A stunning and stark acoustic guitar begins, chased down immediately by some crashing electric guitar chords and bass drums. Before you know it there’s a loud, fantastically protracted riff that absolutely demolishes the acoustic finger-picking. On top of this, the monster-ish progression has three notes while the measure has four beats, forcing a creeping uneasiness into an already exaggerated scene. This new part gives way to a third section, which turns out to be a perfect resolution, and makes for one of the prettiest moments on the album.

Hits and misses for an experimental band are different that they are with other safer genres of music. An inherent quality of experimenting is failing: if not, then there is something wrong with your scientific method. To Deerhoof’s credit, most of their “mistakes” don’t stand out, but rather blend into the framework of their intelligent and unusual art. Parts that work least well for me today may feel different after a few more listens. That said, I can safely say “Kidz Are So Small” is annoying and “Matchbook Seeks Maniac” isn’t interesting. The former sounds way too much like M.I.A., putting too much emphasis on Matsuzaki at her silliest and rapping-est. Deerhoof incorporates electronic sounds into the mix more successfully on tracks like “Choco Fight”, where they come off sounding like new Beck on acid (old Beck on more Acid?). “Matchbook Seeks Maniac” manages to underachieve and leaves me thinking of the French band Air. But this is Deerhoof’s special brand of underachieving, the kind that spurred me to jot down the cryptic line in my notes: “Sounds like a Martian radio friendly song ???”

Yeah, obviously, I think everyone should listen to (and buy) this album. There are hundreds of nooks and crannies in Friend Opportunity I still haven’t discovered – I know this because each listen gives me something new. Background music it is not, however: don’t let the rocking parts fool you. Put on your headphones, close your eyes and concentrate, because even when that funky guitar grooves, it’s the cerebral experience that will make you a fan. In short bursts Deerhoof is unusual, but in a much longer and more satisfying way they are interesting and rocking and rewarding.

– Scott Roots

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