Monday, 20 May 2013

Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

Now that the marketing hype machine has run its course and whipped music fans up into a frenzy, today marks the release of Random Access Memories, the latest album from French dance duo Daft Punk. Of course, I've grabbed a copy to review and on listening it's certainly a step in the right direction.

Early reviews and news coverage of the album (plus the constant teasing use of single Get Lucky in television spots) have already set the tone for their fourth album; it's less robot rock and more soulful disco and funk this time around. It seems ironic to me that now Daft Punk are trying to recreate the 70s wholesale rather than sample it for catchy hooks and hot riffs, but with quite so much music experience under their belt, the duo do seem to pull it off convincingly.

At 13 tracks and with plenty of jangling guitar riffs, bass guitar lines, catchy vocoder work and mix of period electronic and real drums, the album is very much a fusion of styles new and the old. As if they are trying to say that the robots have soul, they even break out the violins, flutes, grand pianos and acoustic guitars (notably on floaty number Motherboard), all to good effect, though the synthesisers are never far away to create those keyboard sequences that are unmistakably French.

There are plenty of other great additions to the album too, such as the slap bass on Lose Yourself To Dance (Zapp and Roger, anyone?) and the vocal work of Pharrell Williams, who works as a fitting replacement for Romanthony's characteristic vocals (sadly no longer with us). Fragments of Time strays even further off the beaten track into Little Feat and Steely Dan territory, with Todd Edwards (name checked in Teachers) acting as a less naselly Donald Fagen to my ear. Giorgio Moroder's track I found a little bit indulgent at first (Italo-disco bass lines notwithstanding), especially when it weighed in at over 9 minutes and as it reminded me of all the reasons why I love Lemon Jelly. That might be a bit of an unfair comparison, but it's what came to my mind.

There are some parts that seem strangely out of place - particularly the opening to Beyond: a powerful string melody that reminded me of an old Western movie that unsurprisingly doesn't feature again. This isn't to say that the rest of the track, a wonderfully vocoder-laden collection of mellow synth-lines and lazy guitar, isn't worth listening to; quite the opposite. This, together with The Game Of Love and Within, are all worthy contenders for a follow up to love song Something About Us, serenading with retro 80s toms and light rhodes pianos. Lovely!

In fact, the wild, harsh synthesiser sounds that are almost expected of the duo (think pretty much all of Human After All) are very much conspicuously absent in most of the tracks. Though synth sounds are used, it's usually in a subtle manner to support the rest of the track or build a distinctly vintage kind of sound, rather than dominate the track completely. In truth the album never really suffers for this: Random Access Memories is a concept album that adheres strongly to the idea that there is still value in the sounds of the past - so much so that it would probably reward listening to with your significant other, complete with a bottle of wine shared whilst on a rug in front of a fire place.

And what of Get Lucky, that track that has been used to set up the whole album? Well, it deserves all the attention and praise it gets, but it's unfortunate that it has been diluted by being used EVERYWHERE so that it jars somewhat when listening to it now. For me, it's a gateway track for the rest of the album and the newer material it offers, including all the other tracks that I haven't covered here.

Thinking again of the Hype Machine, I'm sure that it has certainly worked, as it has provoked people into listening, talking about and no doubt buying the album. The emphasis in pre-release marketing had been on a catchy 70s and 80s sound and for some, the release has been a bit of a disappointment. I wonder if they were expecting a return to the glory chart-topping days of Discovery, which might go some way into explaining these reactions, but quite simply I think it is that the disco vibe here is quite tame in comparison to the somewhat louder, harder sound of modern electronic music. Or maybe it's because most of these tracks will not translate well to the club as they have been before. Perhaps the remix scene will deliver in this regard and please everyone?

It's this comment best matches my impressions:

"At first, I really was upset and dissapointed. It didnt sound like the Daft Punk I had listened to for the 15 years of my life! On my second listen, I can hear it. It's new, different and amazing!" (Spelling mistakes are not mine).

So, evolution not revolution is the name of the game. Thinking back to the huge jump between Homework and Discovery (which, in my view, highlighted just how manic and jumbled the tracks on Homework are), this is something we should be used to by now. I'm sure there would be plenty of detractors ready to jump out of the woodwork if they just produced another Discovery again, so there's no satisfying everyone.

Catchy, well produced and sporting some big name collaborations, Daft Punk's album is a nice breath of fresh air from the duo. Not their best work, but definitely a solid album nonetheless, and works if only because it reminds you of all the other artists and tracks that these tracks sound check.

iTunes link, for 60 sec samples: