Sunday, July 21, 2013

Album Review: Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (2013)

Back in 1997, when my now 15-year-old daughter was still in the womb, I used to play Daft Punk’s breakthrough hit ‘Da Funk’ so often, and so loudly, I was quite convinced she would be born with either a bassline-induced nervous twitch or a fully blown funky afro … quite possibly both.

In the end, thankfully, it was neither, but I had to repress a wry smile recently when – completely unprompted – she blurted out … “so Dad, have you got any Daft Punk?” …

It’s great watching her discover new “old” music. She’s come through a chamber music programme over the course of nearly a decade now, and is relatively proficient with at least three instruments. She understands the basics of composition to the extent she is starting to experiment with software to make her own stuff. I’m proud of her achievements, and so pleased she loves music as much as I do. But she knows what she likes, and her reason for asking was not because she thinks her old man has exceptional taste (he does!), but more to do with the fact that she knows he’s a serial music hoarder, and would more than likely have a copy of the duo’s latest work, Random Access Memories.
Which, of course, I did.

And so I tell her a little history, including the afro story, we talk a bit about disco, and I tell her a little of what I know about Daft Punk. In the course of doing that, I think I pretty much determined – in my own mind at least – that Random Access Memories is a disco tribute album. Not necessarily the most state-of-the-art or populist album Daft Punk could have made, but one that was near and dear to its collective heart.

Perversely, that commitment to making an album they’d love to listen to themselves, with scant regard for the latest trends in dance music, Daft Punk have succeeded in making an album that looks likely to not only make all of those critical end-of-year lists, but likely to top a fair few of them. An album that will just as likely now be considered “state-of-the-art” and “populist” … which in itself is quite some achievement in 2013 terms, for what I loosely describe as a “disco tribute album”.

But what else is it, if not exactly that?

Step forward, Nile Rodgers, rhythm guitarist extraordinaire and the main man behind many a disco classic – think the entire back catalogues of Chic, Sister Sledge, some Diana Ross, and collaborations with a multitude of others. He’s been a producer, an in-demand session musician, a solo artist, and just about everything in between. And from what I gather via social media, he seems like a helluva lovely guy. 2013 has been huge for Rodgers after some years of struggle (health), live gigging with the latest version of Chic, including an appearance at that most unlikely of venues, Glastonbury, and this, a star turn on Random Access Memories.
It’s probably a moot point and a discussion for another day, but it begs the question: Has Daft Punk revived the career of Nile Rodgers, or is it the other way around?
If Rodgers is the disco God of the Eighties – and I think you could argue that he is – then Giorgio Moroder was that guy in the Seventies. And if Rodgers plays tribute to himself on the album, then the otherwise faceless French duo of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, aka Daft Punk, seem equally determined to acknowledge Moroder’s wider influence. So much so, ‘Giorgio By Moroder’, which includes a voiceover from the man himself, rates as one of the album’s best moments.
There’s also ‘Get Lucky’, earworm of the year for those who wouldn’t normally pay attention to the otherwise much maligned genre that is disco. Pharrell Williams provides the vocal for that smash, and also another fine moment on ‘Lose Yourself To Dance’ … but the cameos are not confined to Nile, Giorgio, and Pharrell; there’s Panda Bear (of Animal Collective fame and considerable hipster cred) on ‘Doin’ It Right’, Julian Casablancas (of The Strokes) on ‘Instant Crush’, and well kent Los Angeles producer Todd Edwards (on ‘Fragments of Time’).

Usually I’d have serious reservations about an album which employs so much vocoder, but Daft Punk is one of the few outfits to do it this well, and curiously, in the same way these guys have unwittingly managed to turn the form book on its head, what is often unpalatable for me in any other form, seems to be perfectly tolerable here. It works.

And so it all works. A disco tribute album in the year 2013. Who’da thunk it?

A genre that isn’t exactly known for its capacity to produce classic albums, might just have produced one of the very best of its year. A full 35 years or more after the very same genre supposedly died a grizzly death. If someone had suggested such a notion as little as 12 months ago, the padded vans containing men in white coats would have been queuing up at the front door. If Daft Punk, Nile, Giorgio, and the rest prove anything on Random Access Memories, it’s to always expect the unexpected where music is concerned. And never write off the infectious delights of disco!

I thought this clip was quite amusing - an excerpt from Soul Train, apparently this is Stevie Wonder's 'Superstition', but it could just as well be Daft Punk's 'Lose Yourself To Dance'. You decide:


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