Justin Smallbridge: Deconstructing Random Access Memories

justin_Smallbridge_headshot_01I’ve played Daft Punk’s new record, Random Access Memories, a few times now, and I am still trying to figure out what it’s trying to be, or what Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo are trying to achieve or what they’re hoping I should feel about it. That’s not to say it’s difficult to figure out. On the contrary, it couldn’t be easier or more apparent. It’s mostly what we used to call “disco” — the good parts, anyway.  Much has been made about the fact that the whole thing was recorded with actual musicians using analogue methods and equipment. Much less care seems to have gone into the composition of the material so carefully recorded by all those seasoned session pros.

Daft Punk. Random Access Memories. (This file may be corrupted or just largely mediocre.)

DaftPunk-over-LRGIt comes across like a machine-made attempt at fake nostalgia, like an attempt at making records an earlier incarnation of Daft Punk would’ve sampled. And like a lot of Prince’s work, it frequently has the unintended result of reminding you of a better record it’s trying to sound like or was inspired by. That’s probably one of the side effects of paying attention to music for a while. At some point, most of the “new” material you encounter just reminds you of something you’ve already heard and may well own.

(Yes, The Sheepdogs, I remember the first time I heard Neil Young. Or are you trying to be Stillwater, the fictional band in Almost Famous? I think they were modeled on the Allman Brothers.)

MIX.DEC.02The single from the Daft Punk record, “Get Lucky,” has a hook and a chorus you can remember and sing along with after hearing it once. But there’s an album surrounding that single, which, in itself, seems like a quaint notion from the disco era. The cherry-picking and long-tail notions of our digital age mean that we should just snag the single for 99 cents or a dollar-twenty-nine and skip the surrounding filler. And just like back when you had to buy a lot of filler to get the singles (before the “industry” figured out that it could flog three to five songs on an LP as singles), Daft Punk’s “album” contains a lot of stuff that seems to be there solely for the purpose of padding the proceedings out to 74.5 minutes. (This would’ve been a better record if they’d kept it to the old analog/vinyl limit of about 40 minutes; there’s plenty of needless flab here.)

korg vocoderThe proceedings open with “Give Life Back To Music,” which is a pretty funny title and sentiment for something that comes across as such a highly-engineered, precision-tooled beat-delivery unit with a vocoder vocal. I know the vocoder vocals are Daft Punk’s “thing,” but it goes from quirky to grating to a reason to beg for mercy pretty quickly. Is it a way to partially disguise the French accents? Maybe they intend it as some kind of clever commentary on alienation and dissociation and mediated experience or something. But that kind of thing belongs in a scholarly paper determined to suck all the fun out of whatever it purports to explain.

Cut two: “The Game Of Love.” Slow, plodding, dull. Five minutes and 22 seconds of filler. Vocals: Sad robot, complaining.

giorgio-moroder-title3. “Giorgio By Moroder.” Opens and closes with interview excerpts of Mr. Moroder explaining himself, sandwiched around a generic Moroder pastiche that just makes one want to listen to (a) “Love To Love You Baby,” (b) “I Feel Love,” (c) The Midnight Express soundtrack, (d) Kraftwerk, (e) “Planet Rock.” I think we already knew that anybody with a basic knowledge of Moog hardware can synch it to a click track (as Moroder explains) or sequencer and get a Giorgio Moroder track. Or is the point of this that Moroder worked so hard to make his work sound futuristic and “computerized” and now anybody can use a phone with the right apps and approximate a passable Giorgio Moroder record? Four minutes in, they drop in a Fender Rhodes solo, which turns it into “Super Strut” off Eumir Deodato’s second LP. Moroder talks some more, there’s what sounds like a synthetic strings break but isn’t, then suddenly it’s the Chemical Brothers’ “Block Rockin’ Beats.”

Giorgio Moroder. TV news story.

Donna Summer. “I Feel Love.”

Eumir Deodato. “Super Strut.”

Chemical Brothers. “Block Rockin’ Beats.”

“Within.” Same sad robot with a misfiring unrequited affection chip from  “The Game Of Love” returns to continue complaining.

Roy Batty has seen things you wouldn’t believe. Do androids dream of electric sheep?

daft-punk-working-with-pharrell-williams-julian-casablancas-and-more-01“Instant Crush” (featuring Julian Casablancas.) Boring. Fake punk nostalgia practitioner teams up with fake disco nostalgia practitioners. Adding AutoTune to the vocoder makes both more annoying.

“Lose Yourself To Dance,” (featuring Pharrell Williams). Even better in its original version, “Sometimes You Win,” from Chic’s second LP, C’est Chic.

Chic. “Sometimes You Win.”

Paul-Williams“Touch” (featuring Paul Williams [no relation to Pharrell Williams]). Song takes eight minutes trying to figure out whether it wants to be a sloppy, self-pitying ballad, late-1970s disco throwback to the 1940s or just a lot of swirling dry ice and assorted misty vapors. Lyrics return to the theme of a robot who wants to be a real boy, which by this point is tiresome.

“Get Lucky.” The single.

“Beyond.” Mid-tempo noodler with lyrics that remind one of the spate of Dutch pop records that went up and down the charts in the early 1970s; things like The George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag.” The lyrics sound like they were learned phonetically, or written by somebody who didn’t really speak English all that well.

The George Baker Selection. “Little Green Bag.” (even though it sounds like they’re saying “greenback.”)

“Motherboard.” Utterly generic library music that could slip unnoticed into the KPM catalogue and serve as accompaniment to hundreds of industrial or education video presentations from the 1970s through to the 1990s. The Moog is stricken with diarrhea and messily fills its pants halfway through. This is one of the numbers they should’ve left out of the final running order.

“Funky Fanfare.” Keith Mansfield. 1968. Still sounds fresher than Daft Punk’s current efforts.

“Fragments Of Time.” Pleasant up-tempo number featuring a pedal steel guitar. Could be the second single. In 1973.

“Doin’ It Right.” Not to be confused with the superior “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” by the S.O.S. Band.

S.O.S. Band. Take Your Time (Do It Right)

“Contact.” Space radio chatter segues into more Chemical Brothers drums over simple chord progression. Last 1:30 wasted on artful soundscape featuring Moog boiling over atop malfunctioning speech synthesis modules arguing with each other.

“Horizon.” When you want Pink Floyd, but can’t afford “Wish You Were Here,” why not try Daft Punk Floyd’s “Wish We’d Showed Up? Reminiscent of Floyd, but with no lingering melody or bongwater aftertaste.

This record is like that joke of Dorothy Parker’s about British women’s shoes. She said they looked like they been designed by somebody who’d nile-rodgers-daft-punkoften heard shoes described, but had never actually seen a pair. All those 1970s disco records are still available. Daft Punk even hired Nile Rodgers of Chic. He plays on three tracks. They should’ve studied their source material a harder or taken another hack or three at improving what they came up with or just made it a Nile Rodgers record they assisted on. Disco seems easy. But Rodgers could’ve told them it’s tougher to do well than it initially seems.

I should put this in perspective, though. Daft Punk were four and five years old, respectively, at the height of disco. This music is as new and fascinating to them as the records on the American Graffiti soundtrack were to me as a musically ignorant 13-year-old, and about as removed, historically. The key difference is that they’re trying to recreate what Chic were doing from 1977 through 1980, which I guess makes them this century’s Sha Na Na.

Sha Na Na. “At The Hop.” Woodstock. They did for the 1950s what Daft Punk are doing for the late 1970s.


Justin’s column appears here every 4th Monday

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonJustin Smallbridge is, among other things, a writer, producer, broadcaster, voiceover artist and record collector.

One Response to “Justin Smallbridge: Deconstructing Random Access Memories”

  1. I rarely leave a response, however after browsing a few of the responses on this page Justin
    Smallbridge: Deconstructing Random Access Memories | Segarini: Don’t Believe a Word I Say. I do have some questions for you if you tend not to mind. Could it be only me or do some of these remarks come across like they are coming from brain dead individuals? 😛 And, if you are posting at additional sites, I’d like to keep up with you.
    Would you post a list of the complete urls of your shared pages like your twitter feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?

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