Sunday, June 2, 2013

Album Review: Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

Album Rating: B
Before we begin, I’d like to propose a toast. To Daft Punk. Raise your sleek, silvery and aesthetically pleasing glasses of space champagne to the ceiling of the discotheque. Thank you Daft Punk. Where would we be without you, the prismatic light-show that is your very being cutting through the mucky analog sameness of mid-'90s house, lending life and warmth and vibrancy to a future-of-sound once so bleakly swallowed in spidery spindles of steel-gray and clipping delay. Thank you for what you’ve taught us — like about how robots can feel love, and how computers can paint pictures in our head as vibrant as any crotch-squeezed leather-bound guitar fiddler. Let’s face it guys, we owe them so much, they can essentially do whatever they please. Their latest record, Random Access Memories, could have been full of covers of mid-'50s bossanova classics and they’d retain their secure space in the Valhalla of recorded sound. That’s that.

I still have to do the review?


To some minds, a bossanova best-of might not seem too far off from the actual product: Disco. You know, that thing that everybody hates? The classic “I like everything but rap and country” comes with an implied “disco” that faded from explicit usage as the genre lost clout in the early '80s. Some old timers still say it the old-fashioned way, generally with a sneer and a heightened pitch as their lips flutter that five-letter word. Here’s a hard truth: DISCO NEVER DIED. Shiny mirror balls flow through the veins of popular music like white blood cells, zapping the predatory jabs of critics and haters with the antibodies of boogie-woogie rhythms and unshakable melodies. 

The first thing to understand about Random Access Memories (let’s say R.A.M. from now on) is that it’s an album of purpose. Really, many purposes, all valiant and worthy of applause. As buzz grew and track lists appeared, it became clear that Daft Punk, in their day the heralds of bleeping and blooping and drum-machine claps, were incensed with the direction of the electronic dance music they love like a son, or a father, or all of the above? It’s been said by some wise people and many a middle school history teacher that if we lose sight of our past, we’ll get lost on the way to the future. We can’t love the music we’re making if we hate the little we even remember about those who made it possible! So, where are the unsung heroes of disco in our music history books? Those who paved the way for so much four-on-the-flooring with hi-hat smacks on the off-beat and were made martyrs by the furious opining of a public not ready to accept the beauty of the computer world? Daft Punk wanted to bring them back to us — to bring us back to our roots. 

I’d like to imagine here the duo, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, fully garbed in sparkling black suits and cyborg heads, climbing age-old paths into fog soaked mountains on their quest for the ancients of dance, but it turns out they were already pals. The characters in question are primarily Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rogers, the first a legend for his chart-topping collaboration with Donna Summers, “I Feel Love”, and his radical introduction of the synthesizer to popular dance music, the second the lead guitarist and frontman of Chic, a New York disco outfit that set the standard for that genre in its heyday. While Moroder’s influence is felt mostly in spirit, quite outwardly on “Giorgio by Moroder,” which takes samples from two interviews between the band and him and sets them to a blistering rehash of Mr. Moroder’s style, Rogers is the grease that keeps the whole complex, multifaceted machine moving. His virtuoso funking can be heard on the majority of the album’s tracks, and, despite the monotony of tempos, always manages to be moving - emotionally and physically. 

The moment when the synths give way to 16th-note strumming on “Give Life Back to Music,” the album’s opening track, would be quite jarring had the magnificent “Get Lucky” not already graced many listeners ears weeks before the album dropped. The shift is very pointed. The song itself seems like a challenge, or a charge. At the breakdown, when the keys are spinning around in infinite regression, it’d be hard for even the most die-hard house fan to talk trash about R.A.M. Then the song cuts out and “Game of Love” begins, which is okay, but boring, and quite long. For a minute, it might seem nice to imagine another one of the pump up tracks sliding in right after the first, but then you realize that most of the funkier numbers sound... well, they all sound similar. Without the waltzes to break up the mix, you might get lost in the changelessness. Unfortunately, the slow tracks end up sounding the most sterile of all.

Numbness is a risk that comes with the territory the duo have taken to. R.A.M. is 2013’s answer to the question of the “Perfect Rock Record” — Your Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper’s, Dark Side of the Moon. They’re beautiful, exquisite, almost flawless, and, at times, thanks to all those nice adjectives, totally alien and unrelatable.With collaborations filling the liner notes from start to finish and prevalent live instrumentation played by a talented (not to mention pricy) backing band, R.A.M. seems on the surface an album curated instead of created by Daft Punk. Without the robots, though, the album would not be the independent world that it is. With the careful hand of production, they assembled the physical laws of the heavenly systems in which these songs reside. Techy embellishments fall out and spread over the night sky of the record like an artificial starscape projected from behind the opaque mystery of those helmets. The very air that surrounds the sound is tuned especially to the proper density, color, and character that its designers desired. 

When in the grimy hands of sex-crazed humankind, grooves are caught in this world’s strange gravitation pull and the strange oily solution of perfection and flaw sets new standards for dance music everywhere. The unlikely team of Nile Rogers and Pharrell Williams manipulates the natural order of the record most masterfully of all. “Get Lucky” and “Lose Yourself to Dance” are the album’s two best tracks, and no doubt will constitute its legacy. Both give the impression of dance and rhythm as a primal concept, as deeply ingrained within our psyches as the search for sustenance. We may find people from across the world difficult to understand, but we all understand what it means to get down. Sandwiched in between the two hip-shaking masterpieces, smack-dab in the middle of the record is “Touch,” a gorgeous suite that takes the album’s at times over-the-top cinematic arrangement style and makes it seem classic, more sprawling space-mural than glitzy high-budget sci-fi flick battle scene. Paul Williams’ vocal delivery complements the galaxy-faring, existential concierto expertly. 

But spots of exceptional songsmithing interspersed with good moments here or there won’t cut it. Daft Punk set out to make an album that could reinvigorate the human aspect of music making, and ended up with a product at points shockingly unrelatable, not to mention occasionally empty of ideas. Furthermore, not every collaboration has its place. “Instant Crush,” featuring Strokes singer Julian Casablancas, would have fit perfectly on that artist’s solo debut record a few years ago. In fact, it would have been one of the best tracks, but that doesn’t matter. It should have been there, not here. Panda Bear’s contribution on “Doin’ It Right,” likewise, feels a bit odd, clocking in as one of the album’s shorter numbers at 4:11, but still managing to feel over-extended and motionless. 

Random Access Memories’ charge was an honorable one, but giving life back to music doesn’t mean covering up the cracks. The cuts that do feel alive are teeming with energy and activity, but they’re too rare. The album is a good listen, but it was designed for greatness. It was made to step out of the darkness of eight years of near-inactivity and shake up the status quo permanently. Quite simply, it won’t. Will the duo’s legacy as one of the most import groups of the past 20 years be put into question? Of course not. Hell, watching “Get Lucky” flower out over the internet was a beautiful thing. They’ve made a lot of people happy in 2013 with nothing but a four minute radio edit. I hope they don’t quit, not that they need jobs — I’m sure they’ve got more joy up their sleeves.

1. Give Life Back to Music
2. Game of Love
3. Giorgio By Moroder
4. Within
5. Instant Crush
6. Lose Yourself to Dance
7. Touch
8. Get Lucky
9. Beyond
10. Motherboard
11. Fragments of Time
12. Doin' It Right
13. Contact 

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