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Deerhoof - Friend Opportunity

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Artist: Deerhoof

Album: Friend Opportunity

Label: Kill Rock Stars

Review date: Jan. 24, 2007

In an interview I conducted with Greg Saunier in 1999, the Deerhoof drummer spoke about the band’s shift in sound from 1997’s The Man, The King, The Girl to Holdypaws, which, upon its release in ’99, featured a sound far different than the noisiness that Deerhoof had previously plied, expounding on the pop sensibilities that lie underneath. “We want to make songs that any band can play…” he said, later adding, “If it works, what will be special about them is not the sound, but the composition.” And while Holdypaws’ delightfully idiosyncratic pop was stripped down and purged of unnecessary ornament, it wasn’t long before Deerhoof began introducing more diverse instrumentation and the little flourishes that they had formerly disavowed.

But what kept things off-kilter was the songs’ composition, and the band’s goal in 1999 continued to bear fruit throughout their next few albums, with their simple, yet perplexing melodies. On each album, things seemed to grow just a bit more conventional, but Deerhoof were never in danger of becoming just another pop band. Friend Opportunity, the group’s latest release, doesn’t push them wholly over the edge into the aforementioned abyss of the average, but it finds the Deerhoof sound more streamlined than ever.

Reveille, the group’s first album after a shake-up that most notably replaced guitarist Rob Fisk with John Dieterich, marks the high-water mark of Deerhoof’s creativity, and while they’ve certainly made very worthwhile records since 2002, the group has dulled their sharp edges here and there, smoothed out many of the bumps, and their music has decreased in the number of hairpin turns and unexpected jumps it contains. Friend Opportunity, marked by yet another line-up change in the departure of guitarist Chris Cohen, is Deerhoof’s most straightforward effort, and while they may never truly be predictable, the (now) trio – below the surface – find their quirk factor at an all-time low.

Satomi Matsuzaki’s distinctive vocals remain a hallmark of the band’s music, but where her cute squeak is best tempered with equal doses of musical roughage, Friend Opportunity, in both production and composition, finds her too often an unopposed presence in the music. In fact, much of the album lacks the sense of discord that Deerhoof has so often expertly used as a foil for their sing-song charm. Transitions from soft to loud are often smooth, and there exist few jarring moments, with even the tumultuous crescendo of “Look Away” evolving so slowly that its clamor becomes comfortable. Saunier’s drumming, another of the band’s frequent unsettling forces, is constrained largely to steady rhythms, lacking the scattered qualities that so often provided the energy behind Deerhoof’s best up-tempo explosions.

Friend Opportunity isn’t bereft of unexpected excursions, but the trio’s experiments with expanded instrumentation (the horn swells of “+81” and plaintive piano of “Whither the Birds?”) and stripped-down hip hop (“Kidz are So Small”) are hit and miss. The disc’s best tracks are the ones that might seem most formulaic within the context of Deerhoof’s catalog, like “The Galaxist” and “The Perfect Me,” which would do a suitable job of opening any of the group’s more recent albums. Still, there are some unexpected gems amongst Friend Opportunity’s 10 tracks and 37 minutes; namely, the stark beauty of the aforementioned “Whither the Birds?” and “Cast Off Crown,” containing Saunier’s only vocal contribution; its alternating sections of bravado and calm, though slickly navigated, offset each other well.

But the majority of Friend Opportunity fails to surprise. While it’s an easily listenable disc not without its share of good and engaging tunes, for a band who have made some of the best and most confounding pop music of the last decade, it’s a bit of a letdown.

By Adam Strohm

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