*A few impulsive, unedited words on the French…
Random Access Memories
The knives came out for Daft Punk on the 14th of May. The sabres were already rattling in the weeks leading up to the release – or rather the official “leak” of their new Random Access Memories album – since the release of its first single Get Lucky, a rickety but fun funk jam featuring Pharrell Williams, that is almost certainly destined to become a quintessential summer of 2013 anthem.
What exactly were these cryptic chrome-domed Francophone funkhousers up to? Besides their trademark, and somewhat overused, Vocoder robotics and love of analog synthesisers, the songs from RAM, as they streamed live on iTunes, bore scant resemblance to what Daft Punk has been presenting since their first appearance on the French electronica scene between 1993-97 with their debut Homework, and then later, Discovery, albums that helped define the era’s dance music sound of fat synthy riffs, catchy alien choruses and jittery glow stick beats.
Personally, I have always had a passing admiration for the duo, just short of actually listening to their music full time. Their mysterious image – helmeted, stand-offish, and jarringly unhuman – was unique, if not a little trite, never really helping to make dance electronica music a more personable genre. I was more a fan of the blokeish ordinariness of the workaday DJ/producer image like the Chemical Brothers or Fatboy Slim. But the Daft Punk image of anonymity and aloofness helped the group get on with letting their music speak for them. It was undeniable that they had good songs, catchy, danceable music that helped bridge the European and New World aesthetics of dance, electronica and progressive hip hop, connecting the Jean Michel Jarres and Giorgio Moroders of a bygone, almost forgotten era with the likes of Kanye West, Animal Collective, etc.
Yet, it all seemed just a little too clinical, too processed, again just too unhuman – yes, I realise this word may not exist, but it fits the group precisely. After fifteen years, travelling comfortably through a healthy evolution of electronic music as high priests of the dance culture, creating soundtracks for sci-fi films (Tron: Legacy) and appearing in commercials for trendy clothing lines, Daft Punk were in danger of becoming a musical norm, the dowdy ordinary, the discarded gold standard, a flaking blueprint packed away in the archives, never to be consulted again. Until they create an album like Random Access Memories, possibly the world’s most misunderstood album ever recorded.
Naturally, in this era of immediacy and constant connection, as the album streamed last Tuesday, a twitterati of celebrities, fellow electronica (and non-electronica) artists and ordinary citizens weighed in with their unique 142-character opinions on what had been the most hyped and stage managed release of the year – sadly, to the detriment of another interesting album released (leaked) the same day, The National’s Trouble Will Find Me, but that’s a story for another day.
Notable highlights of flying off the handle included gems like:
“Daft punk got a hologram troutman hidden away somewhere … then Werner Herzog shows up or whatever” – Zodiac
“This daft punk thing needs more gunshots and air horns”- (electronica artist) Zomby
“Listening to RAM obv. The first track is pish.” – Jackmaster… “It’s better than the second” – Four Tet
“Daft Punk’s new album is an experiment in banality, marketing and reputation. They have officially (Ricky) GERVAISED.” – DaftLimmy
“Maybe lots of people are hating on RAM right now because it’s not very good … It’s not great or even god awful. Just, pish.” – Lauren Martin, FACT
“What the hell kind of robot made this? A flat battery Fisher Price one after its robot balls had been done by a soldering iron?”- The Quietus
*These are some of the kinder ones. There are some, many, positive reactions to the album, but they’re not as imaginative or as mildly amusing as these above.
Consensus of all of it, though, could be summed up simply, and suitably ambiguously, with: ‘what the fuck is this shit?’
Well, to my virgin ears – I had avoided listening to the whole ‘is it or isn’t it?’ debacle of Get Lucky on its initial release, preferring to hear it in the context of the full album – the answer to that question is: RAM is a bold and unashamedly gushing love letter to disco. Whether this is good or bad thing, time and repeat listens will decide.
Assembling an unlikely, ragtag team of collaborators: Moog maharishi Giorgio Moroder, The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, Panda Bear (Animal Collective) and progressive RnB producer Pharrell Williams, along with some of music’s forgotten, but most proficient session players – musicians who, with live instrumentation, helped define the glossy but classy atmosphere of 1970s disco and 80s pop-rock (notables include bassist Nathan East (Eric Clapton, Fourplay), “human drum machine” Omar Hakim (Sting, Weather Report, Bobby McFerrin) and versatile guitarist Paul Jackson Jr (Michael Jackson, Elton John) – and most importantly, Nile Rodgers, whose production prowess and innovative guitar-playing singlehandedly defined the American disco funk sound of the 70s and 80s, his Le Freak (with the group Chic) is a pop-funk standard if there ever was one. Rodgers’, and to a certain extent Moroder’s, influence and guidance on RAM is the album’s most distinct element.
A lot of critique of the album during the initial frenzied clamour to define or, more often than not, to deride Daft Punk’s intentions here, were about the sound of RAM – it doesn’t sound like a real Daft Punk album, more akin to being labelled as a derivative disco record. Some unjustly comparisons went as far as likening it to a collection of lost Steely Dan demos and a bad Michael McDonald album. Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I like Steely Dan and Michael McDonald, I wish there were more records like them, unapologetic fluffy pop-jazz-funk hybrids with great competent live instrumentation that’s not always showy, but full of interesting ideas. RAM is an album that fits that description.
If that philosophy can be summed up in just one of the tracks from RAM, then hear:
UNCLE GIORGIO Speaks…
Giorgio By Moroder – featuring, naturally, Giorgio Moroder on spoken word, reminiscing on the origins of his long musical career and overall aesthetic philosophy, while around it, like faithful disciples, Daft Punk build a little epic 9-minute sonata that segues from pulsing synth modulations into dinner party disco funk, then, unexpectedly, a sharp right turn into triumphant orchestration for an underdog movie and then straight down into a solid bass, drum and guitar stadium sized jam anthem, all the while Uncle Giorgio explaining his musical raison d’être, and indeed the overall message of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories:
“…I wanted to do (music) with the sounds of the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, and then have the sound of the future…why don’t I use the synthesiser, that is the sound of the future…” and then later:
“…once you free your mind about the concept of harmony and of music being correct, you can do whatever you want…nobody told me what to do, there was no preconception…”
That, if anything, is a perfect retort to the impulsive, premature overreaction of listeners to RAM,
(let the album simmer, Twitter, and let its riches become more apparent and fulfilling with time)
…more importantly, though, these words are also the most honest summation of what Daft Punk wanted to achieve with this album.