Kill Rock Stars
like to think I got past the “album title means something about the album”-type myth after learning that Pearl Jam's Ten had, in fact, 11 songs, but sometimes the stars do align I guess, so here we are: Friend Opportunity is really lonely music. Thanks to Mr. Groch's high school religion class, we all know the Chinese character for “crisis” means “opportunity” but it also means “danger,” and FO is about wanting to be loved, doubting yourself, trying to fit in, sometimes succeeding, failing the rest.
That's a weird claim to make about Deerhoof, I know. The Bay Area rock band are eyebrow-scorching, jawdroppingly impressive technically, and though they use traditional rock instruments and play sold-out concerts and have lifeloyal fans like yours truly, they make music that strikes me chiefly about music. Which has limits. There’s a self-involvement to their songs, a refusal to communicate beyond itself, that drives detractors to call the band “nihilistic.” The flip of that is a high compliment though: The band is capable of communicating More Than Music, something beyond the ohmigods that ripple through their live show audiences, spellbound by Greg Saunier's sprawls of fragmented percussion, Satomi's oblique animal mystic poesy, John Dieterich and Chris Cohen's spiderwebs of dense alternate chords and monster riffs.
Cohen left Deerhoof last summer, but the band remains fascinated with More Than Music. Here are nine really communicative almost-pop songs, subdued but no less ambitious follow-ups to similar tendencies on 2005’s The Runners Four. I say “almost-pop songs” because something like “The Perfect Me” just isn't a pop song. Instead it tries really hard to be a pop song, which in this case is more interesting. Next to those rolling drum rhythms and the menacing guitar/organ crunch, Satomi's cartoon jingle-like melody sounds all the more naive, while the 6/4 time signature makes it slightly more difficult to “follow the light and meet” her, and the discordant breakdown keeps Satomi at yet another arm's length. “Believe E.S.P.” has a slinky electro-pop allure to it I associate with Enon or Cibo Matto—like Deerhoof are trying to be really sexy, they “know what's on your mind,” etc.—but as the song goes on, the dense bubbly mix becomes really blank, really stark. The bell parts ring out alone, and at one point the song gets so tongue-tied and nervous it starts stuttering like a glitched-up remix of itself.
Reading that last graf over, I can see somebody not buying this album's whole conceit of loneliness on entirely malleable, strictly instrumental evidence. But—and this might also sound crazy to say about Deerhoof—try to deal with it. The lyrics towards the end of the album have me convinced that this isn't just inside my head. There the spotlight's on Satomi's voice and lyrics, and how they interact so smartly with the accompaniment. “Show me your personality,” she asks on the moody bubblefunk-to-showtune-like “Choco Fight,” while “Whither the Invisible” finds her even more on the nose: “How can I find you?” The chords follow her more than she them, piano arpeggios running to “somewhere far away,” Satomi convinced “it's a trap, it's a vicious trap.” FO's most transfixing song, “Cast Off Crown,” features Saunier dreaming in falsetto of how he, “like a bird...will rise and be queen of the castoffs”—which strikes me as both a celebratory remark but also one that masks a lot of real frustration and anger, a complicated fuck-off to needing other people. There's something infantile to the sentiment, sure, something unreasoned, but real nonetheless. I don't think I've heard any band really communicate what's basically this “stiff upperlipped toddler, defiantly alone in the sandbox” feeling before—not to say the feeling stops with five-year-olds.
“I would sell my soul to devil, if I could be the top of the world,” Satomi happily reports on second-last-song “Matchbook Seeks Maniac.” It's the album's most straightforward 4/4 rocker, no heavy percussion, no untraditional progressions or difficult lyrics, no Deerhoof. Fuck me if this isn't the smartest rock song I've heard in a while: a song about giving up your soul to be loved, to be respected and famous, performatized by a band suppressing all its character, all its supposed foibles and rough edges. No wonder they end with a 12-minute, seemingly aimless atonal dirge called “Look Away.” It's an apotropaic song, to ward off that sort of “Matchbook” desperation, theirs and yours and mine, to keep us hopeful about being ourselves.
Reviewed by: Nick Sylvester
Reviewed on: 2007-01-25