james debate
james debate

Friday 17 May 2013

Genre Disco, Classic Rock
Label Columbia Records
Producers Daft Punk

daft punk random access memories

Daft Punk are one of those rare artists whose brand is almost synonymous with their particular genre. Few would argue that with their early work in the 1990s and early 2000s they defined the fledgling electronic dance music scene. Their 2001 album Discovery essentially set the precedent for the past decade of club hits and pop music in general.

In fact in pre-release interviews the band's creative duo of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter revealed that it is precisely this fact that has them so disillusioned with dance music in recent years. In their own words dance music has become stagnant, no longer evolving, and still entirely too dependent on the style and sound employed by Daft Punk themselves all those years ago. It's an astute comment.

With that in mind it's easier to understand the band's drastic departure with new album Random Access Memories. To begin with, they have entirely ditched the sample-based songwriting that dominated their past albums and produced an album of entirely original music recorded using live instruments. For this I commend them. Yet if Daft Punk's apparent intention is to redefine dance music yet again it's somewhat mystifying to see how.

Daft Punk have always drawn heavily on disco and classic rock influences in their music, but what made their past releases so noteworthy was the way they took these dated genre tropes and re-imagined them with futuristic production and a modern vibe that was unlike anything else. The same ideas as their disco and classic rock roots, but refreshed and given a slick space-age 21st century polish for a new generation.

With Random Access Memories they have done away with this signature sound and produced an LP of what is almost relentlessly straight disco, as is apparent from the opening track, the ironically titled Give Life Back to Music. This is certainly not a bad song, it's quite good in fact; velvety smooth disco groove with a sunny west coast vibe, but if you take away the classic Daft Punk robot vocals there's nothing to distinguish this from any song lifted straight out of the 1970s.

There's also a bit of easy listening piano music, a sound that's completely alien to Daft Punk, notably the 8 minute epic Touch featuring the vocals of Paul Williams. Again this is a very pretty song; moving, delicately sung and impeccably produced with sweet backing vocals and a thrilling instrumental mid-section around the 3:25 mark, but where is the trademark Daft Punk innovation that elevates this from nostalgia to something... more?

Gone for the most part are the exciting beats, high energy build ups, and synth guitars. Gone also for the most part are the vocoded robot lead vocals, the album now chock full of big name collaborators from Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas to Animal Collective frontman Panda Bear and DJ Falcon, from Nile Rodgers to Pharrell Williams. It's an impressive list of collaborators, but without the trademark style this album is near unrecognisable as a Daft Punk record, it just doesn't sound like them.

A great example is lead single Get Lucky. This is a perfectly solid dance track that's already being widely played around clubs. It has a suitably funky disco club beat, it even has a brief but chaotic vocoder section in true Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger style. But it lacks that Daft Punk rock and roll edge, and with Pharrell Williams taking the lead vocals this song comes off as nearly indistinguishable from any other r&b jam out there. This could easily be Justin Timberlake or Bruno Mars or someone, it comes off as sounding incredibly generic and safe. This goes double for Pharrell's other song Lose Yourself to Dance, a song that sounds disturbingly similar to Timberlake's Rock Your Body.

The fact that the band has tried to do something different is by no means a bad thing, on the contrary I very much approve when musicians display diverse musical tastes. The guitar solos on Discovery still melt my face off, but I have no issue with Daft Punk trying something more mellow. The problem is that they haven't really brought anything new to the table. Far from revolutionising or reinvigorating a genre, Random Access Memories sounds more like an old school pastiche of other artists. A band that once led the way for music now follows others.

It's a sign of the high expectations that this alone renders the album somewhat disappointing. However once you detach yourself from any preconceptions you can enjoy the music for what it is. Random Access Memories is an ambitious and impeccably produced collection of luxurious and grandiose songs. Each one is a throwback to a different time, but it's a delicious and occasionally brilliant nostalgia.

Fragments of Time shows another example of a perfectly decent classic rock song in the mould of Steely Dan or Electric Light Orchestra. A lovely song in its own right once you get past the fact that it just sounds absolutely nothing like Daft Punk, save for a brief but explosive instrumental climax in the 3rd minute.

Still, Random Access Memories is most successful on the occasions where it endeavours to combine the old and the new. The summery Instant Crush is one of the best songs on the album, employing of all things a traditional verse/chorus structure in a Daft Punk song. Yet it builds on its simple, catchy tune with robotic vocals, dance music production and sensibilities, and a fantastic Daft Punk guitar solo. Doin' it Right is another highlight, featuring a sparse but effective arrangement. A simple driving baseline gives rise to Daft Punk's robotic backing overlaid with Panda Bear's distinctive vocals. Sounds like a funkier version of Animal Collective.

Ultimately the album might not tread much in the way of new ground, but it is big, opulent, and epic. The songs are packed with complex melodies and lush orchestral compositions, and with the transition to a full band of live instruments one gets the impression of Daft Punk maturing from basement dwelling hobbyists, arranging samples on laptops, into genuine music superstars. This is an event album, and while it will certainly divide existing fans, it shows all the signs of cementing Daft Punk as one of the world's biggest entertainment acts.

Must Listen:
Instant Crush
Doin' It Right
Give Life Back to Music

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