2007 / Music

Review: Deerhoof Remain Defiant Experimentalists

Indie-Rock Group Release 8th Disc

If you’ll forgive the condescending comparison, Deerhoof is the lapdog of indie-rock groups.

Photo: Kill Rock Stars

Photo: Kill Rock Stars

For years, the California-based trio has enjoyed the patronizing attention and shared the stage with bigger and more accessible rock experimenters like Wilco and Sonic Youth. But, the band has done little compromising to earn its meals on its own.

The group’s art-project approach to music, which totals eight albums and a handful of EPs, is chronically radio- and MTV-phobic. Deerhoof songs are typically convoluted, unsteady and a frustrating listen. As soon as the band creates something seductive — an appealing melody or groove-oriented instrumental part — the music rudely switches gears into a snarky digression. Frankly, they are the kind of group Jeff Tweedy will say he adores, but whose influence he steers clear of when plotting his next hit song.

Like their records before, Deerhoof’s new album, “Friend Of Opportunity,” continues to specialize in the kind of avant-garde rock guaranteed to infuriate. The group’s sonic inconsistencies and cliche, artsy pretense mar the better experiments interwoven into their new songs and threatens this album overall.

Most of the new songs are beguiling at first, before listeners are cast adrift into the band’s tempestuous seas. “The Galaxist” starts with a tender pattern of acoustic-guitar playing (think of Kansas’ “Dust In The Wind”) and dull, fey-singing by Satomi Matsuzaki, but this is washed out by surging, discordant electric guitar swells. Curiously, what surfaces from the storm of sounds is an uneven and peppy love song. Matsuzaki’s crooning is sweet contrasted with guitarist John Dieterich’s gruff leads. Meanwhile, drummer Greg Saunier works his kit with a whirl of blows, but never discovers a steady beat.

“The Perfect Me” shares an equally frenetic drum rhythm, but has a grander scheme behind it. The song is a mini-epic of experimental interludes smashed together. As Saunier taps out an ever-stumbling drum pattern, a horror-movie organ hisses. Oddly, Matsuzaki’s singing resembles the cartoon Roadrunner’s bleats, “Meep Meep.” The ramshackle music is then interrupted by a powerful, snarling guitar passages. The song continues to build into intensity as Matsuzaki is proudly doing her Looney Tunes impression. It’s as disconcerting a listen as one of those car-accident auditions for “American Idol.”

Deeper into the record, the group seems to get a firmer footing as it alternates between being weird and being more accessible. “Cast Off Crown” is laced with frenzied, chunky guitar that wrangles any listeners who begin to tune out during the soft, downcast acoustic-guitar verses.

Even better is “Believe E.S.P.” which has a funky, ’70s guitar lick partnered with a cowbell rhythm. The deadpan Matsuzaki, meanwhile, is indistinctly singing another language (or gibberish) via speakerphone. “You’re reading my mind out loud,” she sings, but this doesn’t sound exactly like a worthwhile idea.

Not surprisingly, the record’s best track is its most consistently conventional. “Matchbook Seeks Maniac” begins with the beat from the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and is soon bolstered by a forceful church organ. Matsuzaki’s singing is still thin-sounding and largely undecipherable, but the melody is powerful enough to shepherd the music through the song’s convention verse-chorus-verse structure.

“Kidz Are So Small” goes the exact opposite direction from “Matchbook Seeks Maniac.” And such, it has no qualities that warrant a listener’s further attention. The track is tangentially reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Revolution 9” in its perversity, but has a better drumbeat and a bizarre hook: Matsuzaki intones with a thick Japanese accent, “If I were a man/And you a dog/I’d throw a stick for you.” Time listening to this song is time listeners won’t get back.

This is the central problem with this album and Deerhoof as a band. To their credit, the group is steadfast and stubborn in pursuing its concept of good music. But, it doesn’t make “Friend Of Opportunity” any easier to listen to. The disc requires too much effort for too little payback.

Like a lapdog, Deerhoof looks good for decoration and they are similarly limited in what else they can do.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2007 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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