After 13 years, San Francisco’s indie noise-pop darlings Deerhoof have a history of crafting albums that teeter between the irresistibly catchy and the mind-numbingly challenging. This time, the band has tilted the scale toward the pop side of things. But before the tried-and-true fans throw on their copies of 2002’s Reveille and promptly adjust their Facebook profiles from “Deerhoof” to “Early Deerhoof,” understand this: While Friend Opportunity is undeniably a pop record, it is certainly not without its share of left turns.
These turns, however, are hidden within a more straightforward framework. Wasting no time, Deerhoof blasts off into the indie pop stratosphere with “The Perfect Me.” While the album opener sees explosive electric guitars doing battle with church organs and percussive taps, Satomi Matsuzaki’s understated, preschool child vocal makes for a comforting (albeit familiar) contrast. When Matsuzaki declares, “Meet me, meet me, meet the perfect me,” what she’s really saying is this: Deerhoof is doing pop and doing it better than most.
Yet the question remains – is Friend Opportunity really Deerhoof’s “perfect” incarnation? The ultra-infectious “+81” provides a compelling argument. Emerging from a parade of trumpet arpeggios, the track kicks into a loose, rockabilly blues progression. Matsuzaki, doing her best impersonation of a drowsy pixie, sings of a “building, building from the side to side of town.” But just as the hip-shaking begins, the chorus hits harder than expected. Although “Choo, ch-ch-choo! Beep Beep!” aren’t the kind of lyrics you’d hear on everyday Top 40 radio, the melody is nevertheless contagious.
In fact, tracks like “+81” bear a striking similarity to the long lost video-game pop of Playstation’s “Um Jammer Lammy” – the relatively obscure and infinitely more endearing ’99 forefather of “Guitar Hero.” What works best in the bizarre, cutesy music of “Um Jammer Lammy” is its ceaseless variation within the pop framework, and this kind of pop variety works just as well in Friend Opportunity. Deerhoof have the unique ability to take a seemingly unsingable melody and weave it within a series of increasingly complex passages. Before you know it, the melody is not only familiar but addictive.
It’s not just the complexity of Deerhoof’s music that makes Friend Opportunity a great pop record – it’s the way they transition between the different sections so effortlessly. That’s not to say Deerhoof is making it easy on themselves.
“The Galxast” begins with timid acoustic guitar plucks in the vein of a sleepy campfire sing-a-long. Suddenly, a supernova guitar explosion (provided by John Dietrich) shakes the campgrounds. The listener awakens to gleaming electric guitar lines, driving bass and Matsuzaki’s gentle voice as she sings of “Mercury” and “melody.” It’s a telling thematic concept – Deerhoof seem to have mastered the fusion of the otherworldly with straightforward pop.
While there are many unique moments within the record – the Balinese Gamelan and Grandaddy imitations on “Cast Off Crown,” the stop-start story of man’s best friend in “Kidz Are So Small” and the nod to My Bloody Valentine on “Matchbook Seeks Maniac” – it’d be hard to overlook the final and most stubbornly inconsistent track, “Look Away.” Clocking in at nearly 12 minutes, the song is an odd finale to a relatively concise, 10 track pop album. While it may have worked for Weezer (akin to the epic “Only In Dreams” on the Blue Album) it doesn’t quite work as well here.
It’d be easy to mistake “Look Away” as Deerhoof’s apology to their die-hard fans. But in reality, it’s the sound of the band having a whole lot of fun and getting just a bit carried away. As Friend Opportunity’s near-perfect pop suggests, however, no apology is needed at all.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
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