Incredibly, indie rock trio Deerhoof are now in their 13th year of existence. When they began, grunge was still all the rage, and only a precious few listeners were looking for avant-garde, DIY noise-pop. Drummer/keyboardist Greg Saunier is the band’s only original member, although it doesn’t feel right invoking the name Deerhoof to describe the group before enigmatic singer and bassist Satomi Matsuzaki joined in 1996. Keyboardist Kelley Goode followed a year later. Along with guitarist Rob Fisk, these four musicians comprised the lineup for the first important incarnation of Deerhoof.
But how important were Deerhoof in the latter half of the 1990s? Okay, not very. Sure, grunge was dying or dead at this point, opening up more room on the shelves of alternative music fans, but Deerhoof were still really alternative. The two albums they released during this era, 1997’s The Man, the King, the Girl and 1999’s Holdy Paws, leaned much more toward the experimental than the melodic. Still, the foundation for their sound was born. Deerhoof traded formal song structures with abstract departures owing equally to 20th century composition and the distorted guitar jams of Sonic Youth and other likeminded rock experimentalists. What has always made the band stand out, however, is Satomi, the Japanese-American vocalist whose sing-songy melodies are a cross between Western nursery rhymes and the kitschy bubblegum pop music of her ancestral land. The contrast between her technique and the often spiky, scattershot approach of the rest of the band has always made for a bizarrely delightful combination.
In 1999, current guitarist John Dieterich replaced Fisk, and Goode left the band. With 2002’s Reveille, Deerhoof began to hit their stride. Their arrangements started to reflect a tighter logic and more artful intent. Although still quite odd and aimed at only the more adventurous indie ears, the record earned critical praise. For the ensuing tour, the group took an additional guitarist, Chris Cohen, cementing the quartet that was phase two of Deerhoof. Their popularity soared (relatively speaking) over the course of their next three albums. With 2002’s Apple O’, I began to take notice of this zany noise-pop unit with the kooky girl singer. New fans accumulated.
The wave was building and would continue to do so with the excellent Milk Man in 2004. By this time, the scales were tipping toward accessibility. Their sonic departures were becoming more and more focused, melding with the band’s catchy melodies into a seamless whole. The weirdness had actually become the hook, instead of competing against it. 2005’s The Runners Four consolidated the success of their recent efforts. Deerhoof had finally become something of a mainstream underground indie act, inasmuch as such a paradox is possible. In other words, instead of just a few hardcore weirdoes liking Deerhoof, they had become hip with all the cool kids.
In 2006, Cohen left the band to devote more time to his group the Curtains, thus triggering the beginning of Deerhoof Mach III. Their brand new album, Friend Opportunity, is the result of this newly trio-cized version. Musically, it follows the logical trajectory of the group’s evolving sound, as Deerhoof shift, in small increments, toward a more traditional pop/rock form. And, predictably, the record is less guitar-centric than past efforts. This allows for more varied expression of the other instruments, especially synths and drums. These elements were important on past albums, of course, but they’ve come more to the fore on Friend Opportunity, imbuing each song with a unique personality.
This is probably Deerhoof’s cutest, most digestible, and instantly appealing album. Despite the loss of a key member, Deerhoof come across as more settled this time out. More often than not, this manifests as confidence, but a couple of tracks feel lackluster. The pastoral “Whither the Invisible Birds?” simply doesn’t do enough, only finding a memorable passage in its final coda. “Kidz Are So Small”, meanwhile, is a spazzy little throwaway. The album offers plenty of sweetly off-kilter gems, though. First single “+81” is terrific, with wonderfully cool and goofy moments abound. “Choco Fight” rides a bright and squishy synth pulse, then transforms into twinkling arpeggios. And opener “The Perfect Me” features a fast-paced woodblock beat reminiscent of a sped-up ‘60 score to a chase scene.
The album would verge on greatness were it not for its sour ending, “Look Away”, an 11:45 closer of dissonant guitar noodling like pin pricks, with a horror show for a middle section in which everything collides in a tangled mess, the song resolving pretty much as it began. Old school fans might claim it as their favorite track, but the song derails what is an otherwise mostly crisp, pop-flavored CD. At least they saved this indulgence for the end. Stop it, pause it, or eject the whole dang disc if you need to. The first nine songs are growingly addictive, making Friend Opportunity a highly worthwhile listen.
// Notes from the Road
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