Friend authenticity

Listening Parties
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photo / feinstein photos Deerhoof is a crazy alien band from the future 

In the music biz, it’s all about authenticity.

But what strikes me is how the definition of that word changes so fluidly. Sometimes you’re authentic if you sing about emotions you really feel, but if you’re too soppy or maudlin, you’re a fake. Other times you’re authentic if you rebel against the mainstream, but then if your underground movement becomes mainstream, are you a fake? Authenticity killed Kurt Cobain.

It’s such a nothing term, but it means everything in how we judge the bands we listen to. That’s because the bands we listen to are like the clothes we wear; if they’re not in, you’re out. Should we listen to music just because it’s cool? Should we not listen to the uncool music we secretly really like?

As much as I’d like to say, “Just follow your heart,” I realize there’s more at stake here. We’re expected to like the right things and have an opinion about why we like them. Your entertainment is someone else’s art. The soundest advice I have for this situation is not to force yourself to like an album. Sometimes love just hits you.

I had dismissed Deerhoof as pretentious art-noise after seeing them live once. By the time lead singer Satomi Matsuzaki was prancing around the stage screaming, “Bunny! Bunny! Bunny!” I was about ready to head home. The fact that they were headlining a festival in Georgia in the middle of the summer didn’t encourage me to stay, either.

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photo / tammylo Deerhoof is the musical equivalent of day-glo shorts 

But sometime between then and now, Deerhoof released an album called Friend Opportunity, their most accessible to date. Granted, there’s still long instrumental trainwrecks, meandering passages of noise, and indecipherable lyrics, but it’s still accessible, and I’ll tell you why: It’s the first Deerhoof record that doesn’t make me feel stupid.

My sophomore year of college I had a writing professor, John Trimble, who told me that good prose makes the reader feel smart. In other words, it’s not the reader’s responsibility to glean meaning from what you write; you have to be as clear as possible while still keeping your writing inventive enough to make it sparkle. Music isn’t always the same way. Often it’s a hodgepodge of hackneyed riffs or self-indulgent tripe, and anything that finds a middle ground between the two ends up sounding boring and unlistenable.

It’s painfully rare to find a band with enough attentiveness to make music that’s both sparkingly fresh and wholly listenable. (Believe me. We get sent CDs that actually cause my ears to bleed.) On Friend Opportunity, Deerhoof finally got me hooked. What I realized, listening to their back catalog, is that they’ve always been a very good band. They just weren’t that great at communicating that to your average music listener.

Not that they’ve sold out or anything. Like their past few albums, the songs still feel like they’ve been Frankensteined together from different musical textures, forming strangely coherent wholes. Between the fewer-than-three minutes of the first track, “The Perfect Me,” the band divebombs through electrified, vaguely flamenco-sounding organ hits, sparse vocal-and-drums verses, expansive builds, joyous Queen licks, all leading up to a last-minute unresolved key shift. Two things strike me here: Deerhoof wastes no time getting in and out of tracks. This album has one of the most direct introductions I’ve ever heard – no ambient noise, no sampled clips, just music. And, like most of the other songs on the album, there’s no forced outro or resolution at the end. What this means, in effect, is that all the songs run together, giving the album a wholly coherent, almost narrative feel. It’s hard to stop in the middle.

The only clear breaks come before and after track four, “The Galaxist,” and arguably before the last track, “Look Away,” which is a sprawling, nearly 12-minute-long mammoth. We’ll get to that one in a second, but let’s look at “The Galaxist” first.

It’s the track that, I feel, best encapsulates the album as a whole (and also makes a great starting point), which is maybe why Deerhoof chose to isolate it and use it as a sort of intermission. It’s a traditionally beautiful song, with twinkling guitars and muted horns, interrupted by one dissonant guitar chord, then seconds later – a distorted guitar line bounds through, slowly giving way to a new twinkly guitar line laid over stuttering drums and Satomi Matsuzaki’s little-girl cry of “Mercury, when can you go after me? Memory, show me the humanity possibility,” hitting the high fifth. Then, after another subtle suspense build-up, the distorted guitar returns to echo the vocal line. It’s this really cheesy guitar-solo move that I can’t quite peg, but it sounds straight out of an ’80s ballad. It’s intensely silly, and I think knowingly so, but instead of coming off with the detached irony of a lot of today’s ’80s-ripping music, it’s an expression of pure joy.

The more I listen to “The Galaxist,” the more I realize that it’s not even the twinkly guitar that I find the most beautiful – of course twinkly guitar is always going to sound beautiful, if not cheesy – it’s the bounding electric guitar that really makes the song. The moment stands for the album in two ways:

(1) Deerhoof never waste a moment: Even when they’re at their most dissonant, they’ve made a promise to you that it’s going somewhere. I’ve found this to be pretty consistent over their past three albums, and it’s true here, too. Listen to the driving Pixies-inspired guitar rattle of “Cast Off Crown” dissolve into a meandering passage, only to completely shut off for a quirky percussive section. All before the first line of the song is uttered.

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photo / mteson Deerhoof brings justice to a crime against humanity never committed 

(2) The music is refreshing as hell. You’ll hear progressions and voicings you’ve never even thought of before. Seemingly inappropriate textures and tempo shifts will resolve into a song’s finest moment. For instance, in the otherwise throwaway track “Kidz are So Small,” listen for the elastic bass repeating the melody over a drum bounce, shortly followed by a subtle lag that immediately corrects itself. Deerhoof have a queer sense of tempo – things tend not to hit at the same time – but it’s all intentional and it sounds great. Most bands just don’t have the balls to do that.

A lot of this comes down to the fact that Deerhoof are better at playing music than you or I. They’re really skilled musicians, sure, and a lot has been made of their technical prowess. And on previous albums, that sometimes made me feel stupid, like I didn’t understand what they were shooting for. But here it all makes sense. They’re using their immense skills for good instead of evil.

Except maybe on “Look Away.” At first, I simply shut off the album after the excellent, completely straightforward organ-rocker, “Matchbook Seeks Maniac.” Its fade-out is a perfectly good ending to the album, and you don’t have to deal with the messy business of listening to 12 minutes of noise-barf. But the more I listen to Friend Opportunity, the more I realize that the epic finale is just as much a part of the album as anything else. It falls apart then pieces itself back together continuously, which makes it a pain to listen to until you get into the cyclical groove of the song. The vocals are easily the least essential thing here, but they break the monotony well and appear mostly during the song’s fall-apart sections. A rhythmic line will start up, develop, and explode into instrumental debris. Then, about seven minutes in, something strange happens. After an all-out shrapnel-fest, the song mutes, and in comes Matsuzaki singing “Me me me me me me me” over familiar, plucked tones – the main progression of “The Perfect Me.” Subtle, yet essential. After more wandering, broken by harsh guitar tones, which then wander themselves, the final melodic build of the song begins. Matsuzaki returns one last time, singing something like “Let’s start wonderful days over” repeatedly until a final, twinkling rumble. It lasts about six seconds, but it’s probably the most beautiful thing on the whole album – that is, if you’ve withstood the 12 minutes it took to get there. Twelve minutes of wandering, but not a moment wasted.

I haven’t even mentioned the playful, horn-studded rock of “+81” or the downright sexy “Believe E.S.P.” nor the opera-cum-showtune “Whither the Invisible Birds?” and, believe me, I could probably write just as much about any of them. Friend Opportunity is the best album of this year.

And I think I like it so much because it feels completely authentic to me. The album probes dark territory, with lyrics steeped in loneliness and desperation, but Deerhoof never take themselves too seriously. The album is unpredictable and sloppy, but I sense that every moment of sloppiness is entirely deliberate. That doesn’t sound very authentic, come to think of it. Not traditionally authentic, anyway.

But I guess that’s the whole point I’m trying to make. Music is as real as the emotions it evokes in you. So whether you tear up when Chris Carraba (yes, I know the name of the Dashboard guy) vomits his guts all over you, or a bounding electric guitar is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard, in the end you can’t like an album unless it speaks to you in some way.

I saw Deerhoof again recently, opening for Bloc Party, and this time I was able to revel in the spaz-fest that is their live act: Satomi Matsuzaki criss-crossing her legs, hopping around the stage; Greg Saunier alternatingly falling all over his drum kit and awkwardly bending to waist-level to stutter into the vocal mic; John Dieterich popping guitar lines like kidney stones. They were entertaining as hell, but I got the distinct impression that they weren’t putting on a show; the band in a rehearsal space might pulsate with the same joy. Either Deerhoof are deceptively good performers or they really are completely in it. The Bloc Party crowd found them a head-scratcher.

The authenticity question is too big to solve in one short column, but I hope that we can explore it together by discussing what we like, and what we might not like so much. Think about your favorite album, either of this year or of all time, and ask yourself what about it you respond to. Being able to articulate why you like the things you like is probably the first step toward having “cool” musical tastes. I promise it’ll work better than pretending to like a band just because your hipster friends do.