Saturday, May 18, 2013

Go ahead, Daft Punk, make my day

The 1980s. Never really the fashion high spot of the last century. Jacket sleeves rolled up to the elbows, puffball skirts and massive hair. On everyone.

The decade that gave us these things really wasn't as cool as fashionable ironists today - with their skinny ties and spectacles large enough to moonlight as department store windows - would like us to think.

But then when you are Daft Punk - enigmatic Paris DJs Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, hidden beneath space helmets (think Top Gear's Stig in duplicate) - you have free reign to tap any genre you like.

Which is why Random Access Memories - the duo's spectacularly over-hyped new album - unashamedly sets out to "rediscover" pre-digital dance music, brazenly spending an hour and a bit in Studio 54, circa 1981, indulging themselves in a phalanx of vintage synths and drafting in Chic's Nile Rodgers and his chicka-wah-wah guitar for added authenticity.

The hubbub around RAM has been phenomenal, some caused accidentally by the apparent premature leak of Get Lucky, an unabashed floor-filler featuring Rodgers' distinctive guitar and Pharrell Williams singing about, well, getting lucky.

It doesn't matter whether you're an inveterate frugger or not, or that you haven't set your twinkle toes alight on a dance floor since your last sixth-form 'disco', Get Lucky has all it takes to be a Kool & The Gang's Celebration for wedding receptions for decades to come.

It is a brilliant taste of what RAM has to offer and has justifiably been the biggest hit of the early summer, becoming Daft Punk's first UK No.1 three weeks ago and Spotify reporting it to be the most-streamed new song in its history. Which does load the dice for RAM - released on Monday - which has been given odds of 4/5 on beating Be Here Now by Oasis as the fastest-selling album in British chart history.

So, Get Lucky notwithstanding, is its parent album as good as all the oral foaming suggests? Are the "awe-inspiring" and "most pleasurable dance album of the decade" reviews accurate, or have the critics been left gaping once more at the emperor's new clothes?

Well, yes. Or probably. The trouble is, you need to listen to it a few times to be absolutely sure, especially if you're the sort of cynic like me who refuses to succumb to mob rule. On first listen it is impressive, but you can't help feeling you've been there before - Daft Punk and their vocoder vocals, Rodgers and the funky Stratocaster that made Chic's Everybody Dance, Le Freak and Good Times such classics, and gave something extra to Bowie's Let's Dance and Madonna's Like A Virgin. But as each listen reveals, there are hidden depths to discover and clever subtleties to enjoy.

RAM takes no time at all to get you going: opening track Give Life Back To Music consolidates the soul and funk from the 70s and 80s with Rodgers' exuberant chopping, and before you know it, most extremities have started to twitch. Clearly, if this album is pastiche, its first song suggests that we're in for one hell of a good time in indulging Daft Punk's cheek.

If Give Life Back To Music takes those of a certain age back to their young adulthood, Track 2, The Game Of Love, will remind them of the hardship of adolescent social isolation, rapidly changing the album's mood already from high-spirited groove to melancholic, last-one-left-without-dance-partner ballad. Slowed down and stripped back to mostly wedding band bass and a snappy snare drum, Daft Punk's vocoder grates considerably.

What happens next is both unusual, unexpected and, eventually, quite exhilarating: Giorgio By Moroder begins with the famed Italian disco hit producer himself talking, interview-style, and similar in style and construction to The Orb's Little Fluffy Clouds, with its echoey samples of Ricky Lee Jones recalling childhood under Arizona skies.

It is, though, a two-part, nine-minute colossus, the first half featuring Moroder discussing his craft, explaining how he saw "the synth as the sound of the future" in the late 1970s, going on to discuss the invention of the 'click track' that synchronised banks of Moog synths in hits for Donna Summer, Queen and Phil Oakey. It is brilliant indulgence - a song without lyrics, but a musician discussing his trade as if being interviewed by Keyboard magazine, before letting loose in the track's second half with a thunderous collage of cinematic, epic prog rock-funk.

As if creatively exhausted by the previous track, RAM descends into the forgettable with the wispy ballad Within, a cheesy mid-80s Phil Collins ballad, replete with over-produced piano and DP's vocoder vocal once again stretching tolerance of the instrument. On Instant Crush, the band stay in the realm of 80s culture with the help of The Strokes' Julian Casablancas, a 4/4-beat and the palm-muted, rondo guitar progression we all remember from The Police's Every Breath You Take. It adds little to the album, save for reminding ourselves of how many films appeared 30 years ago featuring actors named Cory wearing bright red leather jackets and driving, inevitably, into the sunset.

As the Moroder track demonstrates, initial concerns that RAM is simply a pastiche album of 30-year-old funk dissipate as you come to appreciate the range of influences Daft Punk tap into. Touch, for example, opens with a lot of spacey bleeps and keyboard sweeps, in much the same vein as Steve Miller's Fly Like An Eagle, before turning into a camper-than-Manilow West End number voiced by the somewhat wizzened-sounding Paul Williams.

Williams is a veteran American singer-songwriter, who now sounds like Tommy Steele affecting an American accent, and who has, amongst many writing credits to his name, Rainbow Connection sung by Kermit The Frog in The Muppet Movie. I kid you not. Here, amid saccharine-imbued Hollywood strings and a child chorus, he warbles "Touch, sweet touch, you've almost convinced me I'm real". From pastiching 80s funk, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo are now having a pop at the Muppets themselves.

Beyond maintains the cinematic interest with its sweeping string straight from a Western, before turning West with a delightful slice of blue-eyed soul in the manner of Michael McDonald's I Keep Forgettin'. The West Coast vibe returns later on Fragments Of Time, which features Todd Edwards (best known as a house producer but as a vocalist wrote and sang on DP's 2001 album Discovery) updating Steely Dan's Hey Nineteen. It, too, has the perfect 80s soundtrack vibe, Cory - again - now driving along Pacific Coast Highway as the opening titles roll.

At risk of suggesting that RAM is simply a collection of imagined soundtracks (you have Hollywood's obsession with glossy music 30 years ago to thank for that), it is hard with tracks like these not to get lost in the obscure section of a video store. Motherboard is another example, with its strings, arpeggiated sax samples and drum pads, this instrumental could be the opening sequence of a long-forgotten Michael Douglas film, or a Miami Vice interlude in which a pissed off Crockett storms off across Miami's Rickenbacker Causeway in his Ferrari. Having taken their helmets off to Georgio Moroder earlier on the album, Motherboard steers it closest to Moroder's Scarface soundtrack. And it is absolutely brilliant.

Somewhere in Daft Punk's influences are The Beach Boys and, while never particularly obvious in the past, Doin' It Right, featuring the Animal Collective's Panda Bear, and a distinctly Carl Wilson-like vocal set to a somewhat underwhelming backing track of more vocoder voices and drum machine handclaps.

As you may now get the picture, Random Access Memories has its ups and downs. Maybe, though, it's just my personal taste or maybe I'm just over-analysing it, but for every breathtaking moment there is one that you'd rather speed past. Which is why the album's finale, Contact, is just so satisfying.

From its somewhat unoriginal opening, reverb-washed samples of astronauts talking to Mission Control about an unexplained sight on the horizon, it erupts into a stereoscopic sunburst of rhythmic, gated drumming from Omar Hakim, building to a celestial crescendo of Man-meets-God enormity. It has instantly installed itself on my list of tracks you should never listen to in the car, which also includes The Who's Won't Get Fooled Again and Wings' Live And Let Die, on account of their ability to either induce furious steering wheel drumming, or dangerously heavy-footed application of the accelerator pedal.

To return to the original question - is it any good? - it undoubtedly is. Is it "awe-inspiring"? In places, yes, but not everywhere. Is it the decade's best dance record? Again, probably. I would have happily shredded back the one or two aggravating tracks, and maybe the further couple of somewhat missable entries, as that would have ended up with a nine- or ten-track album of unbridled enjoyment that will be - and, if not, should be - blaring out of cars between now and the end of September.

In faithfully and openly raiding the disco collection out of genuine homage rather than ironic pastiche (note how I've worked in two French words there...), you need several listens to extract the subtleties that make Random Access Memories more than just respectful irony. Or, indeed, ironic respect.

1 comment:

  1. Well I loved most of it, especially the beginning of Doin' It Right, which reminds me a bit of the theme music to the 80s medical drama St Elsewhere, which I've always liked a lot. Instant Crush and Lose Yourself To Dance are also fantastic. Fragments of Time was my least favourite track: it just didn't have any special moments to it, which most of the other songs had at least once.