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Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: Random Access Memories by Daft Punk

It might be appropriate to begin here by confessing that I have never liked Daft Punk. Pure prejudice, I guess. The robot masks, the 'techno' music, the utterly unimaginative god-awful artwork on their albums, the association with that horrible movie TRON, the monstrous pyramid from their stage show --- all this combined to block Daft Punk from my field-of-hearing, so to speak. Like some crass marketeer's contrived combination of sci-fi and rave, this was the Disney version of house music; homogenized, sanitized, de-humanized, mega-corporate crap. Or so I thought...

Their formative music was created at the fin de si├Ęcle of house music. The French were the very last European nation to embrace the sound that had, by turns, conquered the UK, Belgium, Italy and Germany. By 1997, when Daft Punk released their first album, I had long since lost interest in anything called 'house'.

French House
But French house wasn't actual house music anymore. It was a transitional form; the end of one thing and the beginning of another. Chillwave and glo-fi grew from developing production techniques that originated within this French house nexus. If Daft Punk didn't invent side-chain compression, gating and the whole array of filtering/compression effects, they certainly popularized them, and introduced these techniques to the wider world outside the narrow confines of rave culture. So while I hadn't actually listened to Daft Punk, I at least acknowledged and understood their importance and influence.

Raising The Bar On Hype
"Get Lucky" says, "Let's raise the bar / in our course to the stars..." The bar they're raising might be the one set by James Cameron, for a whole 'nother level of hype. Billboard quotes some fool saying: "Daft Punk were the first to bring songwriting to dance music," and credits their pyramid with "solving the riddle of how to present dance music on a big stage." Even NPR got in on the act, airing an interview with the pair on All Things Considered. A blog called White Raver Rafting, linked on NPR's blog, has them as "the duo first responsible for popularizing house music in the 1990s." [lol wut?] Nile Rodgers tweeted saying he had cut tracks with the band that were "genius".

The carefully crafted hype hit a crescendo last week when the album was 'leaked'. One wonders if the leak itself isn't part of the ad campaign. As the leak spread - in the form of a link to a 192kbps download hosted on a well-known file sharing website - Facebook and Twitter exploded. Reaction ranged from pure the hyperbole of "greatest album of the decade", to "utter crap", with the latter sentiment predominating.

High-Concept or Gimmick?
Random Access Memories would be made in a ''real studio with real musicians''.  De Homem-Christo told NPR: "For the last few years, with this laptop-generated music around us... what was really lacking to us is the soul that a musician player can bring." The album was envisioned as a series of collaborations, with at least three tracks,  including the single "Get Lucky",  written and performed by Nile Rogers  &  Pharrell Williams. Collabs with seventies MOR songwriter Paul Williams, disco-synth maestro Giorgio Moroder, house producer Todd Edwards, Julian Casablancas of The Strokes and Animal Collective's Panda Bear round out the thirteen tracks.

The novel production strategy may seem like a bold move for an artist best known for beat-making, but this, and the collaborative aspect of the album belie a deficit of fresh musical ideas. They've traded in the thing that worked -- the sample and effects-driven beats -- and retained the dumb stuff; the costumes, the  auto-tune and sci-fi pretensions. Daft Punk is apparently so cool now that they don't even have to write their own songs.

Their high-concept - the 'live' recording, the disavowal of sampling - may be more of a promotional shuck - a gimmick, than a legit new approach.  Making dance music with real instruments is hardly a novel idea; artists like MFSB, The O-Jays, and the Gamble-Huff production team originated and perfected the disco sound with exactly this type of instrumentation in the late 70s, and they didn't have to phone-in the soul...

The "Story"
"And that's maybe what somehow is the story of this record, the story of these androids or these robots or these vocoder, robotic voices that are trying to feel an emotion... the story of these two robots... that were somehow desperately trying to become human... We wanted to take the chance of trying to experiment — or bring back a sense of ambition," Bangalter told NPR. "When you look at what we can call the golden era of concept albums, which starts in the mid or late '60s and ends maybe in the early '80s, it's an interesting time for music. The best example is probably The Beatles..." But the album they have crafted bears more resemblance to the artistic retreat of Get Back  than the adventurous, progressive spirit of Revolver or Sgt Pepper.

Redeemed By Two Great Songs
Most of Random Access Memories sounds like a new Chic album.  "Get Lucky" is a fine single, and some of the tracks might make it as adult contemporary pop. A lot of it is just fluff; sub-Bryan Adams crap-pop. "Touch" is vapid dross that would embarrass Andrew Lloyd Webber. The instrumental "Motherboard" is mildly interesting. "Giorgio by Moroder" is fun but gimmicky; the grand-old-man of techno does a monologue about his early days as a producer over an appropriate homage-track. "Contact", the final track, uses real NASA audio of astronauts sighting a UFO in space, another interesting gimmick, and builds to an obligatory climax,  something like the explosions at the end of a Michael Bay movie.

The  redeeming feature of R.A.M. is two truly fantastic songs; "Fragments of Life" by Todd Edwards, and most importantly, "Doin' It Right" by Panda Bear. The former is a solid pop-rock song that would fit right in on a Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers album. This could be yacht-rock, the kind of sophisticated, grown-up music Sade and Steely Dan have proven has long term, timeless appeal. The latter piece is, for me, the best song of the year so far. "Doin' It Right" is dancing in the moonlight, everybody's feeling right,  feel-good dance-pop magic of the very highest order. Panda's multi-tracked wall-of-vocals is a perfectly organic, perfectly human counterpoint to Daft Punk's vocoder-vocals, and the two artists mesh beautifully on this happy-track.  But the joys of "Doin' It Right' may ultimately derive more from Panda Bear than Daft Punk. 

Daft Punk: The Musical
In looking for "the soul that a musician can bring," they create a problem. By their own account, "We are not really skilled musicians." So whose soul are they expressing here? Niles Rogers'?   Maybe this farming-out their songwriting (and performing) is a way of solving the problem of how-to-compose without samples, like how they solved the problem of how-to-perform EDM, by adding a stage-set piece straight out of Spinal Tap. This plays into their narrative about robots-seeking to-become-human; the robots have to recruit humans to make their music. This almost works, in a narcissistic, Warholesque way. But not the 60s Warhol of the soup cans, but the 80s Warhol who painted the dollar signs and tried to jack the swag of Basquiat. Maybe their contrived robot story might have better served as the basis of a Broadway musical, something along the lines of U2's Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark? Hell, with the costumes and stage-sets, they're already halfway there. but a great album? Naw, Timmy.

Maybe the best thing about Random Access Memories is that I grabbed the 2000 album Discovery in preparation for writing this, and found it to be everything that this album is not; a groundbreaking, innovative, new approach to making music. And one that was so far ahead-of-its'-time that it still kicks ass, after thirteen years.

All quotes are from the NPR interview.

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