Near and Deer

Deerhoof's lasting relationships

The career of Bay Area art-rock band Deerhoof continues as a testament to the potential for artistic merit to coincide with popular recognition. Recent years have found an acceleration of its accomplishments, both in terms of its consistently adventurous output (the newest full-length, Friend Opportunity, came out Jan. 23) and its growing stature with the upper echelons of truly exciting artists; in the past two years Deerhoof has been handpicked to open for heavyweights Radiohead and the Roots. Avowed fans of these illustrious headliners, Deerhoof's members found, in playing with them, a friend opportunity that any musician would welcome — a connection based on mutual respect and artistic admiration.

Of that inspiration, founder and drummer Greg Saunier says, "We wanted to respond to it somehow, as if their music were a question and we wanted to cobble together an answer, something that could possibly follow it. So here's the crazy part — once they invited us to play, it dawned on us that our 'response' to their music wasn't just in our fantasy; they actually did hear it, and related to it in some way, enough for them to reach out to us." It's understandable that Saunier found this reciprocal kinship so gratifying, as this type of musical communication is precisely what Deerhoof (which also includes guitarist John Dieterich and bassist Satomi Matsuzaki) has been striving for during its 13-year career.

As vigorously displayed on Friend Opportunity, Deerhoof has attained new levels of musical mastery. The album finds the group engaging in stuttering, air-compressed funk, dewy-eyed orchestral balladry, and burningly propulsive guitar rock reminiscent of the leanest, most exhilarating corners of Yes or Mahavishnu Orchestra. The members' "out" aesthetic, and particularly Saunier's drumming, is in a perpetual state of reinvention executed with artistic certainty. Friend Opportunity also makes great use of the coexisting sonic simplicity and conceptual complexity prevalent in Deerhoof's music. It's an economical system where underlying strategies are infinitely layered and architecturally divine.

At nearly 12 minutes long, Friend Opportunity's final song, "Look Away," is the most extended and spacious track Deerhoof has produced, as well as its least "pop" contribution since the band's earliest, noisiest incarnation. It moves with the opaque internal logic of a Thelonious Monk ballad, snaking along liberally with no slavishness to any preceding sections. It's a piece that few contemporary rock bands could pull off without lapsing into dissolution, and posits further evidence toward the level of confidence and artistic stride that Deerhoof has hit on Friend Opportunity.

Though Deerhoof is probably among the most progressive rock bands recording today, its music continues to be engaging because of its focus on connecting to the listener, be it this author, elementary school children (last fall a school in Maine staged a full ballet based on the band's 2004 album Milkman), or the members of the Roots. Though Deerhoof's records are great art, they aren't constructed to be codified objects so much as frontline engagements with the hearts and nervous systems of its audience — the elemental gospel of pop music.

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