Deerhoof Friend Opportunity

[Kill Rock Stars; 2007]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: chamber pop, rock and roll, prog, funk
Others: Young People, Quasi, Parts and Labor, OOIOO

Listening to Deerhoof’s ninth album, I can see that the sheer rawness of previous efforts is all but gone. But what's left is hardly anything to scoff at. Friend Opportunity's got some pretty intricate proggy pop-rock tunes to sink your teeth into. Is it as good as 2005’s foaming behemoth The Runner’s Four? Maybe not. Chris Cohen’s input made that album exponentially great beyond the sheer size of the record. But these post-Cohen songs are more developed, the band’s sonic palette actually much more varied. Some Deerhoof fans might be slightly irritated at some of the directions taken here. Admittedly, there are times when I feel like I'm listening to Cibo Matto instead of one of the most kickass garage bands of recent years.

The real precedent here lies with the somber sixth track, which contains just Satomi Matsuzaki's soft cooing, strings, and piano. This is the most serious I've ever heard the band. In fact, Deerhoof are getting so serious that how we enjoy them may have to be rethought. Often the record feels dangerously grounded for a band so lovable in full jet-flapping mode. They are no longer our Teflon yellow duckling in the shitstorm. Other than the disheveled mid-section of the shambling 12-minute closer or the off-kilter "Kidz Are So Small," things remain fairly unmuddied. What it comes down to with Friend Opportunity is an accomplished band really flexing their compositional muscle. They seem to have leaned more toward the pop ideas of the past three records and gone for pleasant and immediate melodies with crisp production values. Those catchy ditties hard-wrung through sheets of white noise were great, but so is this. If their songwriting acumen was ever in question, hopefully this album will sort all those doubters out. The song progressions are exciting, enticing, infectious, and unpredictable as they ever were.

For those of us who would want to hear these songs in a more frenetic style, I have no doubts that they'd deliver that much live. But I’ll not dwell further on their lack of ferocity here. Maybe the opportunity in question is winning over new folks. And why the hell wouldn't they want to do that? They're actually pretty damn good songwriters (it's not like we're talking about Trail of Dead here). The proof has always been in their particular brand of pudding. I can't get my friends into them, and I think it's mostly due to Matsuzaki's somewhat chirpy singing style. But to me, that’s the same as folks bristling at Frank Black's vocals. Often, especially in rock music, a gorgeous singing voice is a deterrent. Just look at the majority of what Yes recorded. It may be impressive, but there's nothing to ground it for those of us who are after something more visceral than precise orchestration and pitch. If Matsuzaki’s voice wasn’t as imperfectly child-like and chirpy as it is, the clean, ambitious feel of this album could easily become a deterrent. Admittedly, I'm not always thrilled with her voice. Sometimes, some accents just grate on you. To some, Robert Pollard's phony British accent may be obnoxious. But this is all neither here nor there.

Deerhoof may be more serious this time around, but the music's still very imaginative and fun. Part of what's been endearing about this less caustic phase of the band is the loosely conceptual feel of their records. They're like whimsical scores for ultra-rare animated fantasy or sci-fi films. Thankfully, their mythical conceptuality has stayed loose (much in the Pollard fashion, as it happens). So far, Deerhoof's ambition is reserved for sound alone. So you can harp on the frequently ‘cute’ quality of the singing, or you can just let go and enjoy. The best advice I can give to both fans and newcomers is to keep an open mind, because this is fun, weird, and endearing music that most definitely deserves your patronage.

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