I can still remember where I was the first time I heard Daft Punk’s “Da Funk.” It was the summer of 1996 and my brother had taped a 1995-end-of-the-year-round-up show by Annie Nightingale off BBC Radio 1. Well, I say “first” but actually it was the second, as I had previously heard it in a dj mix, but at that point I had no way of knowing what it was. Thankfully Ms Nightingale was forthcoming with information, meaning I could track the tune down myself (in a shop and by word of mouth, remember the days?)
To say that “Da Funk” blew my mind is a bit of an under-statement. As a piece of music it referenced both the genres I was loving the most at the time, house music and hip-hop, but far from being some tawdry “hip-house” jam, “Da Funk” was the perfect summation of the best elements of both genres without compromising either. Everything about the record was perfect, including the feeling of “what the fuck was THAT?!” I got after hearing it. A year later Daft Punk released Homework, and it became the record that, more than any other, defined the late 90s for a whole generation of kids who were sick to death of grunge and Britpop and looking for something new and exciting that wasn’t about the past.
So there you have it. My Daft Punk background. I was there the first time round, and young enough for it to be absolutely MY thing. Does that make me an old fart now? Does that make my opinion on Random Access Memories, Daft Punk’s new album and the most hyped music product ever since the last most hyped music product ever, irrelevant?
Answer in the comments if you like, but to be honest, I don’t really care. Having grown up with Daft Punk, and had them make an immense influence on my own music production and song writing, I feel a personal connection to what they do that makes a review of their new album more than just another Internet commentariat bleating along with the herd (though I can’t stop anyone from shooting it down by calling it that).
So in as brief a nutshell as I can possibly put together, here is my review of Random Access Memories: potentially amazing production let down by really lacklustre songs. Now you know what I think. Feel free to ignore the rest of this piece if you want. For the rest of you, here are my gripes…
I say “potentially” amazing production in that technically, yes, it IS awesome in its combination of synthesisers, prog-rock, funk and live orchestration, but this is all in the service of actual music that is too mediocre to do the incredible production justice. It’s like really good icing on a very stale cake. Essentially Random Access Memories has three modes; Herbie Hancock/Weather Report-style vocodered jazz-funk with a heavy reliance on tinkly Rhodes electric piano; prog-like synth-based “mood” pieces slightly reminiscent of Vangelis, John Carpenter or, um, Tron; and your common-or-garden “nu-disco” tracks, which incorporate elements of classic NY disco along with more typically European flavors. Sometimes all three happen in the same song, such as in “Touch” or the much-mentioned collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, “Giorgio By Moroder,” which I will get to later.
On paper, this all looks amazing. I am a huge fan of all these reference points—well, jazz-funk less so, but it still has its moments—but maybe that’s where the problem lies. When they first emerged in the mid 90s, getting access to obscure music scenes like Detroit techno and Chicago house was difficult, especially if you lived in a country that did not broadcast radio or television shows devoted to obscure electronic music (hello Ireland). Daft Punk were a gateway to these scenes, especially with their Essential Mix for BBC Radio 1 in 1997, which was passed around religiously on ever-degenerating cassette tape copies amongst me and almost all of my friends. As time went on, and people began to get deeper into the roots of the Daft Punk sound, Homework itself stood out as an important record because the tunes were actually just as good (if not better) than material they were referencing. Daft Punk were able to hold their own while opening doors to entire musical worlds their fans previously didn’t know about. Even if you did know the Chicago and Detroit scenes already, which many of their fans did, Daft Punk still appealed because their tunes were really good. “Da Funk” appeared on practically EVERY mixtape from 1995-1999 and was a club anthem regardless of the kind of club it was played at. This to me is where Random Access Memories fails. It references amazing music but can’t hold its own when compared directly to it.
In an era where every type of music is instantly available at our fingertips, it’s even debatable as to how “gateway” Random Access Memories is. The disco-revival has been in full swing for about a decade now (trying to define this year the “summer of disco” is on a par with calling it the “summer of summery weather” - every summer is the summer of disco, which, like reggae or rock or pop, has never really gone away) and the electronic jazz / synth / prog / 80s / chillwave / soundtrack / whatever-you-wanna-call-it-scene is already established in the popular consciousness. Random Access Memories just doesn’t feel new or fresh to me at all, and in comparison to much of the music that falls somewhere in the “nu-disco” and “chillwave” camps, it’s just not very good.
“Giorgio By Moroder” is a perfect case in point. Daft Punk are probably the only modern electronic act who could approach Moroder as equals (with the same balance of commercial appeal, musical influence and critical respect) and what do they do? They get him to talk over the top of a tepid Euro-jazz groove that no-matter of production trinkets and baubles can save from being dull. I’m sorry, but nobody buys a record to hear Giorgio talking about his past, we want to at least hear him sing about it, or play it out on a synth. I seriously doubt Giorgio wrote any of the music in this track, purely because it is so forgettable, and he is the undisputed master of the electro-disco key change. The transition from writing loop-based house music to something more complex is a glaringly obvious failure of Random Access Memories, particularly when it comes to the vocals, and especially as there are modern acts who manage to write interesting, involving vocal melodies over standard four-bar dance loops. “Giorgio By Moroder” sounds weak when compared with other modern acts heavily influenced by the man, such as Lindstrom and the Norwegian synth-disco mafia, or Glass Candy and the whole Italians Do It Better family. These groups are working with a fraction of the budget at Daft Punk’s disposal, which also may explain why they do it better: they have to rely on creating their atmosphere with limited tools. Because, for all their talk of bringing disco back, Daft Punk have made the cardinal disco sin: they have stripped the music of its funk and soul, its true liberated atmosphere, and reduced it to background music. Maybe that’s an authentically disco problem (more money than musical sense) but nearly 40 years later the disco records that stand out are the ones overflowing in blood, the sweat, the tears? Even the clinical precision of Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers’ best work was backed up by an intense passion for the music they are making. Passion is something Random Access Memories desperately lacks.
It’s not all bad though - there are some good songs, mostly in the second half of the album. The closing coda of “Touch” featuring Paul Williams is gorgeous, as is the refrain of “Doin’ It Right” (before Panda Bear comes in and ruins it). “Instant Crush” is tolerable, despite sounding like a Phoenix reject, but why get Julian Casablancas to sing the vocal if he ends up sounding like a French robot? There’s already two of them in the band. Unfortunately “Give Life To Music” and “Lose Yourself to Dance” are both pretty painful, despite input from the undisputed genius that is Nile Rodgers. There’s a lot of filler here, filler that sounds like a weak retread of Discovery‘s “Something About Us” (one of my favorite songs form that album.) Too many of the tracks on Random Access Memories sound like the forgettable, rip-off guff that was responsible for killing off disco/jazz-funk/prog in the first place, but, you know, I guess it’s authentic in that respect, at least.
Of course, not everyone is going to agree with my analysis. Here is a great article by the British DJ Greg Wilson that praises “Giorgio By Moroder” very highly. And we’ve been here before. On its release in 2001, Discovery was slated in some corners for selling out Homework‘s techno and house sound with a more pop appeal, and what was seen at the time as a suspicious nod to 80s soul-pop like Hall & Oates. Time has proved Discovery to be one of their best albums, however, mostly on account of the strength of the songs. I am well prepared to be proved wrong by ole father Time, but I don’t feel Random Access Memories will stand up nearly as well. The songs just aren’t there, and neither is the underlying sense that this record simply HAD to be made. To be clear, I loved Discovery on first release and thought it was a brilliant progression from their debut, so I am not sniffy about what they are trying to do. I just wish they did it better. But neither am I surprised by Random Access Memories. The writing was on the wall when a band who made their name by producing machine music with tons of heart and soul somehow thought that rejecting their machines would make them MORE soulful. It just hasn’t worked.
I have grown up with Daft Punk. They have been directly responsible for turning me onto a shed loads of great old disco and electronic music. Right now, though, I feel like nu-disco and chillwave/whatever have actually surpassed them, and they are just not that relevant any more. One of the stand out tracks on Homework was “Teachers,” literally a roll-call of Daft Punk’s dance music influences over a jacking beat. With it, Daft Punk pointed the way for their listeners to discover more incredible dance music, managing to both point forward and backwards at the same time, sealing their own status in that lineage while showing great respect for their musical peers. There is no such track on Random Access Memories, but if their stated aim is to turn modern dance consumers onto more “soulful” music, there really should be. So, I would like to take a stab at how that track would go myself. Inevitably, this list will be flawed, but if you like Random Access Memories, then here’s a whole new world of music you might not have heard yet:
Golden Teacher, Midnight Magic, Com Truise, Todd Terje, Lindstrom, anything on Full Pupp records, Zombie Zombie, Zombi (and any of that band’s myriad side projects), Escort, Gatekeeper, Magic Touch, Seahawks, Chrome Hoof, Arthur’s Landing, Grosvenor, 100& Silk, Dam Funk, Metro Area, Coyote Clean Up, Hercules & Love Affair (especially the first album), Glass Candy, John Maus, Nite Jewel, Desire, Chromatics, anything on Italians Do It Better, anything associated with Valerie, Maria Minerva, Geneva Jacuzzi, Austra.
Daft Punk “Random Access Memories” full album stream: