Sunday, February 25, 2007

If I were art & you were school, I might try to avoid you.

Friend Opportunity
Kill Rock Stars
Released 1.23.07

Rating: 9 out of 10

This record has been haunting me for the past couple weeks. I guess when you’re in a position to sell yourself as an opinionated know-it-all, as I try to do on a sporadic basis, it becomes daunting when faced with something as uncharacteristically strange an album as, Friend Opportunity, the latest offering by indie trio, Deerhoof. Why is it so strange? Well, try to wrap your head around how the background noise of any 80s era arcade sounds coupled with progressive time signatures, syncopated drum styling, fairy-tale trumpets and a vocalist that sounds like a teenage Muppet Baby with a penchant for magic mushrooms and Burroughs novels. In fact, this is one case where the album’s artwork perfectly illustrates the content herein: an imagination as rampant and full of wonder as any developing child, but disturbed as if that child talks to his finger and spells backwards.

Friend Opportunity is the strongest argument against art school and this is coming from someone who graduated from such an institution. I say this because there’s spontaneity to this album, the type that might not exist under the watchful eye of a trained professional with a lot of opinions. And it’s not that there isn’t thought or planning going into the songs Deerhoof puts together. It just feels very organic and unrehearsed. Deerhoof approach their material with a vision so non-jaded you can only imagine that their eyes still sparkle when they gaze up at the clouds. Personally, I’d like to sample their record collection and see where they draw their inspiration. There are definitely No Wave influences at work, but I would like a playlist. I’d probably buy every album.

In addition to the music, vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki’s surreal lyrics and high-pitched inflections are the cherry on top as far as Deerhoof’s sound. There’s wonder there, laced with innocence and a strangely self-assured naiveté that’s balanced by the more experimental aspects of the rest of the band. The urgent keyboard and rapid-fire percussion of the album’s opener, “The Perfect Me,” is a perfect example of how Matsuzaki’s vocals soften the song’s aggression. But, on songs like the poppy “The Galaxist” and the Disney-like “Whither the Invisible Birds?”, she manages to enhance these songs’ intentions by sticking to her formula. Somehow it works. I’ll be honest: at first I thought her voice was going to drive me fucking crazy, but it really doesn’t detract from the music. After a while, the voice only makes sense, especially when you allow yourself to concentrate on what’s going on behind it.

“Believe E.S.P.” essentially sold me on this album. Despite sticking to a simple foundation rhythm, Deerhoof add and subtract an abruptly manipulated array of “Lost In Space” sci-fi bleeps, cowbell percussion, horn and guitar sounds. The unpolished results are mesmerizing. Also straggling the avant are the key heavy “Choco Fight,” the marriage of garage guitar and “world of tomorrow” computer beeps in “Cast Off Crown,” and the free form and off-kilter jamming during the album’s 12 minute closer, “Look Away.” “Kidz Are So Small” is a strange musing backed by classical samples, electronic percussion and static. Think Cibo Matto meets My First Sony.

There’s much for the outsider ear, but it really doesn’t discriminate against the straight-ahead rocker. “The Perfect Me” and “81+” aren’t readily accessible in terms of straight forward rock criteria, but there are blues riffs and rock drumming to be found. Even “The Galaxist,” despite featuring some fairly progressive guitar and rhythm sections a la Mahavishnu Orchestra, turns up the distortion at points, spotting an otherwise smoothly rendered composition. “Matchbook Seeks Maniac” has the anthemic feel of something that The Jesus and Mary Chain might pull together. In terms of accessibility, this might be the most ear-friendly track, revelling in a feel-good moment before the album's lengthy climax. All together, there’s something for everyone though Deerhoof’s brand of No Wave and art rock run rampant throughout.

Friend Opportunity colors outside the lines, challenging the lengths that art and music can be tied together. And it does so with a fresh outlook that doesn’t seem discouraged by the seemingly limited avenues on which music can venture these days. I guess it pays to be positive and, well…imaginative.

Letters From A Tapehead

Saturday, February 03, 2007

To Whom It May Interest #7: LOVE, LOVE, LOVE — The Beatles are remixed

To whom it may interest,

I love mixed tapes. Since my teenage years, I’ve enjoyed many hours at a time figuring out new song sequencing, selecting songs, making cuts and creating themes. Assuming the role of a producer, being someone that will never grace any switchboard or guide any band into creating a masterpiece, is probably its main attraction. For a couple hours, I’m bringing songs together in a format that hadn’t been initially intended, working only on instinct and expressing myself through another’s art.

The hardest mixed tape I ever made, was a Beatles tape.

On one of my first dates with my future wife, I was employing my brand of “gettin’ ta know ya” questioning. To me, there’ve always been two types of people in the world: You got your Rolling Stones type people, and you got your Beatles type people. Granted, there are exceptions to the rule, but I’d say a good percentage of the people in the world are one or the other. I myself am a Beatles person. I’ve never been into the Stones, despite trying. Not to say that I don’t give them credit, but they’ve never affected me like The Beatles. The Beatles, to me, are…just…

…I could go on and on about how much I love the fucking Beatles. My brother and I have, in the past, immersed ourselves in a whirlwind of Beatle-speak the likes of which others discuss politics, religion, television, sports, matters of importance. Few things to my brother and I have ever mattered as much as the impact of a 45-second piano chord like the one that chillingly echoed the climax of a “A Day in the Life.” That being the case, when I popped this question to my now-wife, and she said “neither,” I had a mission. It was up to me to expose her to The Beatles properly. I went home and assembled a mixed tape with “This barely scratches the surface” scribbled on the label of side A and struggled with it for about three hours.

When you only have 90 minutes with which to explain one of your favorite bands on Earth, and you’re a dork like me, you more or less treat it with the same amount of care as you do handling dynamite. The Beatles’ catalog isn’t just a collection of songs: It’s an historical account of an era and the band that defined it. They’re sacred. Because of this, I was initially skeptical of LOVE, George and Giles Martin’s soundtrack for the Cirque du Soleil show of the same name.

LOVE is essentially a mixed tape, exhaustively assembled only through archival knowledge, creativity and the utmost respect. George Martin, the man who brought The Beatles to the world, and his son, Giles, have dissected each song and reassembled them into something familiar but strikingly new. From beginning to end, LOVE is fluid and mesmerizing. Check out “Because” being sung a cappella, or “Within You Without You” being sung over the trippy “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Check out how well the tremendous guitar sounds of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” fit in with the wild organ grinder music from “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite.” A lot of thought went into these decisions and that makes LOVE so much more than just a backdrop for some circus performers.

This album has become yet another conversation piece for my brother and I to chew on. Though our mutual fascination with the band’s music has only been enhanced by this exploration, this really isn’t a Beatles album. LOVE is a producer’s showcase. It’s The Beatles’ music, but its altered being is the result of shapeshifting, morphing and blending at the hands of a human Cuisinart gifted with jigsaw precision and a pair of headphones. The album is really only going to be appreciated by fans. Not to say that it dabbles in elitism, but this wouldn’t work to build new fans or showcase the actual talent of the band, which is what I tried so hard to do with my 90-minute cassette.

So, a skeptical question begs to be asked: Was it necessary to reconsider this music?

Probably not. It’s a question worth asking, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t appreciate LOVE for existing. Necessary or not, George and Giles Martin have created a thoroughly entertaining listen that takes interesting chances and respects the music.

Quote the Lennon nevermore: “All you need is LOVE” and a shitload of other Beatles albums.

Letters From A Tapehead

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