Thoughtbox Review: Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

Alright, so Random Access Memories is something else entirely. Daft Punk is pushing themselves, pushing their audience, and expanding their music into a sort of thesis-statement for electronic music as a whole. Where we usually saw them take the human and find a way to synthesize it into the machine, here we have the opposite: beautiful, looping and undulating tracks produced (almost) entirely by live, human hands. Never mind the drum machines, never mind waiting seven minutes for a track to blossom into its full danceable production (though Alive 2007 never had that vice), Random Access Memories is all disco-ass-kickery right from the get-go. And like I said, it’s something else entirely. It’s an organic thing, and it’s everything you don’t expect – depending on how many times you’ve looped ‘Get Lucky’. Daft Punk’s here to actualize everything they’ve done before in an entirely new way. And maybe it’s too poppy for some, and maybe it’s bloated and overlong for others (certainly), and maybe you just don’t like disco, but you can’t argue it’s a hell of a thing. I’m not posting a review score – for now – nor am I posting a review – though my thoughts can certainly be gleamed from what follows. Here, I’m posting my unedited thoughts, as written during my very first listen through. Which was, oh, about an hour ago. Yes, this is how I really take notes. Like Random Access Memories’ availability right now on iTunes streaming, this is an early look and it’s an odd thing to post. But we’ve waited a very long time for this album, and so I don’t think I’ll hold back my responses any longer than necessary. So here. Have Transylvanilla’s very first Thoughtbox.

It is supremely gutsy to release an album for free ahead of time and Know that people will still pay for it. And I will. and you will, too. Here’s a track-by-track.

1. Daft Punk lands with a splash on the latest – there’s no 4 minutes of waiting and building. There’s no half-album-wait for The Vocals Track. All that hits from the get-go. “Give Life Back To Music” they sing, and there we are: live instrumentation. It’s straight funk, with what would otherwise be electronica breakdowns articulated with live instrumentations – porn-groove guitars, walking basslines, sparkling bells synths and flutes(?). Gorgeous production, of course. Same structures and loops as their House roots (you can feel them), but they just come to life with live instrumentation. Some Rick F. James up in here.

It is disco. More than Homework or Discovery – much more obviously. This time instead of Electronica with soul and funk inside the machine/helmet, it’s Disco and Funk that just also happens to be electronica in 2013. House gets back to its roots – physically, instrumentally. 

2. Moody, floaty, orbiting synths open track 2. Guitars remind me of The Eagles, it has a Hotel California groove. And then it’s straight night-time groove-music. It can be hard to believe the robots are behind something so.. smooth. This is RnB. Nice keyboard arpeggios, guys. “This is a game of love/and it was you/the one that would be breaking my heart/when you decided to walk away/when i wanted you to stay” *sings in robot voice wordlessly and gradually becomes a keyboard*. Gorgeous fusion of their robot/human philosophy going on. There’s a whole synth solo, smooth rhodes, built right out of his vocal solo. How cool.

With any luck this will be their most explicitly ‘musical’ album yet. And so far this is the case. This time Daft Punk is out to make, well, dance-music.  But not explicitly club music. These are songs, with lyrics, and instrumentation that is live and vocals that are sung (whenever they aren’t delivered via beautiful keyboard lines or sparkling synths or raindrop guitars).  

Man, that electric bass. 

3. Oh my god this is 9:04 long and opens with an interview with Giovanni Giorgio. The funk drops under the interview, or rather the disco. “I wanted to do an album of the 50s the 60s the 70s – and then of the future. I thought to myself, why not use the synthesizer … it is the sound of the future!” And so Daft Punk runs with it, and it sounds like a Homework extension. They’re ahead of their time again. Again. Keyboard solo runs wild after an extended noodling intro. Jazz drumming, latin influence even. Bass solo. It can be difficult to even locate Daft Punk in the mix, the robots themselves, with all the guest instrumentation going on. And that’s fantastic. They’re the superstructure outside of the music itself. *STRING BREAKDOWN SO COOL* “there was no preconception about what to do” *and it drops* A very neat sacramental trick, burying that notion in the music itself. And then the electronic stuff drops right on top of the string section. Goosebump-inducing symphonic/dance/disco fusion going on here. They’re masters, and you’re going to remember why. Trading twos on drum solos. Comes to a head, fades out on a slowdown 808 loop.

Remember: Daft Punk was never a pop band. That isn’t their gig and never has been – whatever their reputation (and cameo in Tron) might tell you. They don’t write pop songs, they write sprawling and slowly-building disco-infused French House music, and they do it very well. And here they go again, kicking our collective ass without using pop. I don’t even care if Get Lucky comes on. It’s gorgeous, and i love this. Keyboardist wet-dream.

Daft Punk was already this sort of music – go back and listen to Discovery again. The connection is simply much more explicit now. 

4. Within has a piano solo opener. Like an etude, real pretty, extended too. Then drop the synths, moody and soft. Think that one track off Discovery – ‘Crescendolls’. And then robot singing again. Tremolo like a Theremin. This is slow-rock from the future-past, and he sings in an impossible cadence. Octave shifts are nothing to a man with an electronic throat.

Again, Daft Punk (perhaps a bit proudly) demonstrates they’re capable of writing a pop-song (as Elton John might envision one) without the aid of a collaborator. Possibly a pre-emptive response to the massive success of ‘Get Lucky’, and the obvious pop breakthrough of their Kanye collaboration from years back.

5. Julian Casablancas sings on.. a rhythm reminiscent of ‘I’ll Be Watching You’. Well that was unexpected. That said, he’s processed – lightly, nothing obviously smacking of autotune, just soft pitch-shifts between notes. Again, Daft Punk is up to melding acapella performance with their patron machines, and it sounds Neat. Walking bassline, synths drop hard into the chorus. It’s neat, though the low-key production (blunted synths, tempo) keeps things from being too energizing… yet. Julian’s singing harmony with himself and it’s pretty, though hardly my thing – this is an honest-to-god soft-rock tune, and so I sort of hate it on premise. That said, it’s gorgeously produced, and the robot-rock-esque guitar solo just feels Good. Low-notes grind into synthesizer distortion, sound great. Grooves without brooding, smooth without boring, it’s growing on me. Which is good. Because it runs 5:37.

Where an 8-minute track on a  previous Daft Punk album might denote a slow build (to my impatient, 13-year-old ears, agonizingly slow at times) here the switches are much more dynamic. There are bridges, choruses, breakdowns, and gear-shifting transitions within songs (most notably, so far, on ‘Giorgio’). They work Great. Daft Punk has matured without losing their trademark structures – I’d call this their most accessible yet, by Far. My mom would like this. So would the cat. So does my inner Lazer Raver.) 

6. Alright here we go – track 1 of 2 featuring Pharrell, whom I famously sort-of-don’t-like-at-all. Slap bass and disco strumming are going a long way to convince me of otherwise. The beat stomps Homework-style in the background. Pharrell is on his Prince shit, and it’s pretty alright – he isn’t running the show, he’s hosting a disco dance-party, much as he does on that single we’ve all heard. Soul claps! Stomping drums and bassline that grow and evolve – nice. Sure he’s repeating himself, but it’s Daft Punk of course there’s repetition. “Here take my shirt and just wipe up all the.. SWEAT SWEAT SWEAT”. Okay that’s a little unintentionally hilarious, as are the orbiting robot-head “Come on’s” – awesome as they are. Arpeggiated backup singing from the vocoder are great, indiscernible as the lyrics might be. Who cares, this is a vocal track sequenced like oldschool Daft Punk – it just keeps growing and evolving and mutating and expanding, but with live instrumentation with Prince-style vocals and vocoders layering over and over on top. And like Daft Punk, they know when to drop the track back to zero and start layering again. Very Cool.

A track like ‘Lose Yourself to Dance’ would be dull if it weren’t sequenced like House music, and that’s the trick, isn’t it? Daft Punk can extend a vocal mix like this into eternity (see: Human After All) without losing the audience because they’ve got such a damn knack for track layering.     

7. Intro soundin’ like Close Encounters with more beeps. Solar wind, synth noodling open ‘Touch’, which gives us friggin’ Paul Williams. ‘Rainbow Connection’ Paul Williams, because I’ll take any opportunity to bring that song up. Spacey, echoing bizarro intro tells us we’re orbiting away from earth again. Spooky vocals, a whole lot of…. “touching”. This would have been a great intro to a Ziggy Stardust song. …And then it all silences into a vacuum as Williams takes a vocal solo. I won’t ruin how cool this vocal performance is, frankly. He’s great. He kills it. Daft Punk does not make songs like this, and that’s what makes it so exciting. Yes, it’s disco again, but it’s clearly taking influence from bizarro 70’s acts and their obsession with Space, and that’s what’s so exciting. It’s synesthetic; there’s a growth of colour as the symphony swells. Ragtime piano, trumpets and trombones and the bassline all drop in at once, it’s a cornucopia of wordless sound. It’s one of the coolest music turns I’ve heard in a long while. Tempo shift takes us to space again – there’s those Bowie-esque synthesizers warping in and out, and we’re singing in robot-voices again. There’s a choir and a swelling of the symphony in the background again. It’s an agonizingly slow build… that drops out and… builds… and turns into an arpeggiated synth line straight out of winning a race in Mario Kart! Well, okay. That was unexpected. And the chorus continues again and grows… until Daft Punk drops us into another Paul Williams vacuum! What a deeply strange song.

Random Access Memories is an album of unexpected turns and sudden shifts – sonically, in terms of tempo, vocally, though never stylistically. ‘Touch’ music for a broadway stage musical in its grandeur, you can see the credits dropping in the background, it’s the sort of song many of us never imagined Daft Punk would come around to write – and I can still scarcely believe they have. And it’s playing Right Now for the first time.  

8. ‘Get Lucky’ is ‘Get Lucky’. What more can I say to you, go listen to it. But in terms of the album it functions as a breather after the grandeur and bizarrity of ‘Touch’ – and it’s perfectly sequenced. ‘Get Lucky’ then works as not only a killer sample/single track, but works together with the other fairly innocuous Pharrell track to encapsulate track 7 (that is, ‘Touch’) in its 8:18 long eccentricity (a possible centrepiece to an album full of them). And that is a very, very clever move. Neat. Also can I again stress how cool that final vocoder loop is? It’s great. It makes me miss looping ‘Harder Better Faster Stronger’ as a teen, and I’m sure it’s supposed to.

9. Drops with strings! Something like the opening to a film, was the immediate mental image, and the sensation only grows as the timpanis drop in. Yes Timpanis on a Daft Punk release. What band is this this sounds like music for Ni No Kuni. And of course the pretension slinks out of the way just in time for vocoded vocals and porno-level guitar playing again. ‘Beyond’ is slinky without being trashy, relaxing without ever ceasing movement. I think there might be an actual theremin going on in the background, unless that’s a slide-guitar (come on theremin). It’s a come-down track after ‘Get Lucky’, polluted by ‘Touch’s grandiosity. It’s also the first track to explicitly remind the listener that there are two vocoded robot-men in Daft Punk, and they have distinct voices (definitely a slide-guitar). Cowboy Bebop would have words for a track like this, I think.

It’s important to note that Daft Punk might be the first group in history to permanently vocode themselves, yet never manage to be a pain in the neck while doing so. It doesn’t get annoying, it’s stylistically consistent with the musical styling, and the musical philosophy. It takes a subtle touch to make vocal production like this work. Daft Punk’s vocals come off less like lyrical communications and more like speaking synthesizers, and it can’t be stressed enough how effective their distinction between the two has rendered their musical performance. It’s Very Cool to hear a man’s voice gradually degrade or ascend into a synth-line, organically melding with the track it supports. 

10. Tom-toms, synthesized raindrops and symphony, percussive keyboard beats kick off ‘Motherboard’, which has much more of a classically electronic feel to it.. until the piano solo in the background kicks in. The live drumming on this album is lively as hell, just exciting enough to temper the acoustic guitar noodling that slowly descends into this beautiful, apparently instrumental track. Above and beyond dance music, this is simply beautiful and wordless… music. It defies easy classification, I’d call it music for a film, but Daft Punk’s film music is demonstrably worse than this. There are flutes, apparently a bassoon, and all the while a driving jazz drum beat. Simply gorgeous. If you don’t care for vocals, at all, this may well be your single off of Random Access Memories. And just when you’ve got yourself comfortable, it switches, slows, degrades, turns sinister. Murky and crackling, driving something like a slowed DnB beat. And from that darkness, classic Daft Punk synthesizers reminiscent of their good work on the Tron soundtrack drop on top of more jazz drumming. Perhaps the first track on the album to not be disco.

11. With Todd Edwards, something of another danceable slow-groove slow-dance. His voice suits the track, and yes it is again disco. Disco somehow incorporating blips and bleeps, oscillating synthesizers and, again, the slide-guitar. The synthesizers flicker in and out, lending the chorus something of a strobing breakbeat feel – the rest of the track is smooth as butter disco, and the juxtaposition is striking. Is it worth noting at this point that I’m not a disco fan, and I’m very much enjoying a disco album? Slide-guitar solo. I hate you, slide-guitar, though not here. We’ve made our peace here. And then a guitar solo! Which is actually the processed voice of one of our two hosts! Because of course it is. I love these guys. 

12. Striking vocal production featuring Panda Bear of Animal Collective! Looped robot vocals under a slow-building, booming bass beat, which of course blossoms outwards in Daft Punk’s signature style. ‘Around the World’ is the appropriate touchstone here, and I’m sure someone’s already counted the instances of the repeated phrase. Vocals as instruments, again, with Panda Bear yelping over top. I don’t know if I’ll ever buy into his voice, but the sonic chemistry works – like so many of the other tracks here, there isn’t so much of a lyrical progression as an aural one. Daft Punk doesn’t, necessarily, care about lyrics – and they’re one of the few groups that will earn a pass from me for that. They know how to manipulate the sound of human voices (or manipulated human voices) to create instruments out of communication. And that’s something that the vast majority of dance music does absolutely, embarrassingly poorly. Certainly this whole track runs on a loop, and not a long one, but again it’s the resurgence of that classic Daft Punk appeal – building beats, with a bedrock of vocal loops. A steady groove and another slow-dance with a bass reminiscent of ‘Pheonix’. Pretty.

13. I’d been warned about ‘Contact’. An equation of the observation of the earth from space (via audio sample) with, to this listener, a description of a disco ball. CHURCH ORGANS. Thriller synth-drop into an arpeggiated loop. This song isn’t a slow-jam. Wow does it ever move, full jazz percussion fills, soloing over than synth line. Someone is going nuts on drums, and it’s worth our time to find out whom. And so it is – traded segments of organ clarity and arpeggio catharsis with improvised jazz drumming – and then a deeply distorted guitar-breakdown. ‘Contact’ is a cyclone, whirling to completion, and what a fun listen. Hearing them mix this into live sets will be a stunner.

And then, of course, it all distorts into eternity. Liftoff.

[Endnote]

This is, for my money, a very early Album Of The Year contender. So way to go, robots. So there they are, my collected initial notes for Random Access Memories. An actual review will follow, or possibly not, because my thoughts on the album can be gleaned from the above. It’s a fascinating album, a bizarre one, and a proper review would focus on its faults as well – though those will certainly be easier to locate on a non-streamed version cut into tracks, and not available for free on the internet (yes I have a pre-order). Yes, it’s absolutely worth a listen. Random Access Memories is worth my time and money, and hopefully yours. As an additional note, be sure to look up the personnel list, because it is ridiculously impressive. As is much of the rest of this album. Thanks for reading.

*No Score Given*

Published right here about a week before its release, May 15th, 2013.

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