City Paper is not for tourists
Deerhoof, an eclectic indie rock act that got together almost 13 years ago, has never suffered from too much buzz or too high a profile. Few could ID the Bay Area trio in a police lineup, much less sing—or even name—one of its guitar-driven tunes. Many bands in a similar position would have called it quits by now. But one gets the sense that Deerhoof has yet to arrive. Its last disc, 2005’s The Runners Four, won over the critical elite with off-kilter melodies and singer-bassist Satomi Matsuzaki’s childlike voice. The record also scored the band opening slots with the likes of Radiohead and the Roots, experiences that have given Matsuzaki and company a chance to complain about the drawbacks of large venues.
It’s an improbable state of affairs for a band that began as an experimental side project of Nitre Pit—an outfit that by all accounts wasn’t all that approachable to begin with. That aspect of Deerhoof’s history is still quite evident on the trio’s eighth and latest full-length, Friend Opportunity. Its closing track, “Look Away,” sounds like the work of free-jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock—that is, if he and his amplifier were falling down the stairs during a thunderstorm. The rest of the disc, by contrast, is much more expansive. Not only does Friend Opportunity touch on the band’s avant-garde past—because you don’t want to lose old friends in the process of making new ones—it also acts as a sampler of sorts, culling together many of the sounds that fascinate today’s indie rock underground.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between The Runners Four and Friend Opportunity—Deerhoof’s first album since the departure of second guitarist Chris Cohen—is that the latter’s rhythms suggest the influence of hip-hop and electronica. In other words, the band purchased a drum machine. Sometimes they use it for texture. On the album’s opener, “The Perfect Me,” Greg Saunier layers rhythm on top of skittery rhythm, creating an effect much like the polyrhythmic “double beat” on Timbaland’s early hits. At other times the machine does all of the heavy lifting. “Kidz Are So Small” is little more than a breakbeat and a rap. “If I were a man/And you a dog,” Matsuzaki chimes over a boxy digital rhythm, “I’d throw a stick for you.”
Deerhoof’s feints at funkiness are sometimes more charming than danceable. Disco-punk requires its manufacturers to be patient and persistent, and Deerhoof, it must be said, is anything but. Even “Believe E.S.P.,” a relatively straightforward funk track that culminates with explosions of Sun Ra synths, is about as likely to confuse the dance floor as it is to fill it. Which isn’t to say that Deerhoof is out of its element—from a songwriting standpoint, everything is its element. On “Matchbook Seeks Maniac,” the album’s most accessible cut, the band starts out on E Street, takes a turn down Sesame Street, and somehow winds up in the lobby of the Brill Building. To call it all over the map would be an understatement.
The same could be said for much of the songwriting on the other tracks. With the exception of “Whither the Invisible Birds?”—a Björk-esque number that pairs Matsuzaki’s high-pitched vocals with a synthetic-sounding string section—every one of Friend Opportunity’s 10 tracks is kind of like 10 tracks in one. On The Runners Four, the band channeled its restlessness into math-rockin’ time signatures. Here, the rhythms are easier to follow, but the songs are full of twists and turns. “The Galaxist” begins with a gentle freak-folk guitar figure, interrupts with a succession of doom-metal power chords, then settles into a lazy Latin-pop groove. All of this happens within the first 45 seconds of the under-three-minute track.
“We tend to write really simple songs,” Saunier told prefixmag.com in 2005. Oddly enough, he’s right. Once you strip away all the distractions—the stops ’n’ starts, the Tourette’s guitars, the keyboards that sound as if they were programmed by Sid and Marty Krofft—the core of each composition is seldom more complicated than a cradlesong. Matsuzaki hammers this point home every time she opens her mouth: Her voice is unthreatening, and her lyrics are ready-made for the kiddie-rock crowd. “Choo choo choo choo beep beep,” she sings on the chorus of “+81,” a rockabilly-meets-psych-pop tune that could easily be a hit among the preschool hipoisie. Prepubescent siblings who might prefer something less onomatopoetic are well served too. “Why does power always sink the boy?” she asks on “Matchbook Seeks Maniac,” a song about despotism. “Why does power make the crazy boy?”
It’s a rhetorical question, of course, the kind that’s usually accompanied by a shrug and a smile. Saunier says that Deerhoof makes its tunes simple, in part, to reflect his and his bandmates’ changing moods. But there’s only one mood on Friend Opportunity: upbeat. The vibe is so optimistic that the band sounds happy—or at least not sad—even when the subject is loss. “It’s a trap/It’s a vicious trap,” Matsuzaki sings on “Whither the Invisible Birds?” The song conveys little if any emotion, and much of that depthlessness is attributable to the singing. Matsuzaki delivers all of her lyrics in the same choir-girl vocal range, which at times makes the band sound less dynamic than it really is. By the end of the album, the noise of “Look Away” is welcome, if only because it cuts through all of the sweetness.
Deerhoof, to its credit, must understand this, because the new album is balanced on a knife-edge between bubblegum and experimentation. Were its members to lean too far in either direction, Deerhoof would be a different band, the kind that never sees its name in the arts section of the New York Times or on the same marquee as Radiohead and the Roots. That the band seems to know as much is spelled out in the new album’s title: Friend Opportunity. In spite of all of its quirks and nonchalance, the record is hardly the work of outsider artists who stumbled on a few catchy hooks. To the contrary, it sounds like a calculated effort to make 13 years’ worth of sleeping on floors and working crappy jobs between tours pay some mainstream dividends. Deerhoof wants to be your friend. And Friend Opportunity is the best chance it’s got.