Remove a key member from any band, and there’s a pretty darned good chance that the music made by that band without the missing figure is going to sound different. Take the Smashing Pumpkins, who without Jimmy Chamberlain’s drumming, lacked their trademark wallop and intensity. All I have to do is speak the name Van Halen and my point is made. But Deerhoof, since before the turn of the millennium, has been a group in constant flux. Members have come and gone, drummer Greg Saunier the only original member still in the band. Even Satomi Matsuzaki, bass player and frontwoman, didn’t join until more than a year after their formation. Given their rotating history, the departure of guitarist Chris Cohen probably wouldn’t have been affected their sound that dramatically. And yet, Friend Opportunity sounds different.
Cohen’s absence and the direction Deerhoof takes on their latest album may or may not be related. One thing’s for sure—it doesn’t sound like anything’s missing. Friend Opportunity encapsulates a musical space even larger and more voluminous than The Runner’s Four, their stunning 2005 release. Yet, this album has half the number of songs, compressing their expansive sound into a tighter package, that is until the 12 minute closing “Look Away.” But up that point, Friend Opportunity is fun, it’s catchy, it rocks, it swoons, it weeps, and hell, it’s even pretty. As much as I love this band, I never actually thought I’d be saying that.
Where The Runners Four opened subtly with the drum-less, galloping “Chatterboxes,” Friend Opportunity launches full speed ahead with the breakneck starts and stops of the intensely propulsive “The Perfect Me.” It’s a two minute and 40 second opus, switching from space rock to chugging doom metal to classic rock riffage, Matsuzaki chirping lines like “meet me, meet me/ beautiful daughters” over what sounds like the cosmos aligning. First single “+81” is a little more of a classic rock song, opening first with an Os Mutantes-like horn fanfare, which quickly transitions into John Dieterich’s deft fretwork. It’s probably the catchiest thing the band’s ever done, which makes all the more sense that it was released as a single.
After the dual assault of the first two tracks, Deerhoof descends into more weirdness, as they’re wont to do, with “Believe E.S.P.” This track conjures up more of the band’s oft written-about similarities with Blonde Redhead, the song taking a turn for the mysterious and the exotic, sustaining a high level of awesome throughout. “The Galaxist,” meanwhile, begins with pastoral acoustic guitar plucking, interrupted by harsh clangs of distorted guitar, which then gives way to a soaring, gorgeous melody, the likes of which were almost unthinkable in prior incarnations of the band. Likewise, “Whither The Invisible Birds?” plays it delicately, removing the rock element for a moody synth-orchestra and a sweet marriage of piano and organ harmonies.
When Deerhoof chooses to, they can still make music as bizarre and as quirky as they have in the past. There’s nothing quite like the destructive guitar punches of “Scream Team” here, but the dancing robot progression of “Choco Fight” and the strange rapping of “Kidz Are So Small” (the lyrics go “If I was a man and you were a dog, I’d throw a stick for you“) make a strong enough case for the band’s reputation as being unpredictable and joyously odd. It’s just that they’ve decided to focus more on kickass epic rock songs like “Cast Off Crown,” the one track with Saunier’s lead vocals. Between driving rock intros, strange looped guitar effects and even some samba rhythms, Saunier sings “king of the cast offs/I will rise and be free.” And one-upping that is “Matchbook Seeks Maniac,” a climactic girl-group cum glam rock masterpiece, Matsuzaki incanting “I would sell my soul to the devil/If I could be the top of the world.”
Closing off the album, as mentioned before, is “Look Away.” At 11:45, it’s a weighty one, and a dissonant one, but it’s still worth a listen, I reckon. It doesn’t have the power or triumph of “Matchbook Seeks Maniac” or “The Perfect Me,” though. On Friend Opportunity, something has changed, and definitely in a positive way. The band may not be the same size or shape as it was two years ago when they released their last full-length, yet whatever gaps left have been filled, smoothed over, shined and made brilliant.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.