The good thing about a more diffuse era of popular culture is that while a lot of the music, or movies, or TV out there are pretty horrid, there is a ton of quality. In a lot of ways this has always been the case, though I suspect previous eras did not feature the Billboard Music Awards exaling Justin Bieber’s achievement of ingenuity for releasing an acoustic album. (To be fair, the nominees were not inspired, and most of Bieber’s prepubescent fans might not know that Bieber was not exactly breaking new ground) Even an old fart like me catches himself talking with old friends about how crappy the current scene is – how even stuff like Frank Ocean or Fun which are interesting do not precisely fill me with joy.
Random Access Memories, the latest album from Daft Punk, is a balm to soothe the “modern music scene” inspired malaise. Of course, the French duo are not exactly new fangled names, and they have been an electronic staple for a while. Their beats relentlessly pulsed and droned like many things you’d hear in Euro bars with black lycra shirts, but clearly pulsed a bit better than its peers. This is not that album, and honestly it is not much like any electronic album I know. It’s still an engineering achievement, in the same ballpark as Industrial or good DJ Records, but it somehow manages to also triumph as a soulful record too. Comparisons to the Chemical Brothers are one thing, but evocations of Chic and late 70s-80s sort of soul is an entirely different sport. Oh, and it’s still ridiculously toe-tappingly addictive. It has filled my kitchen a couple of mornings this weekend and it is hard to get out of my head – in a good way.
The confident “Give Life Back to the Music” opens with its bold chords before settling into a lovely groove. In its way, it is not that much different than “Around the World” where the autotuned voice goes with an addictive beat. But you can hear a striking lack of engineering trickeration – just funk guitar, a few effects. But it really does evoke something more like “Good Times” or “Le Freak” (and considering Nile Rodgers is one of the collaborators, no wonder). It is basically a modern take on a disco recipe. This sort of method works throughout – including a 9 minute tribute to Giorgio Moroder (the guy who is most famous probably for the Scarface score), where we just hear his comments against a beat as it melts into the riff. After that is the most shocking song on the album, “Within”, which ends up as an honest to goodness ballad, with really just a piano and some synth effect – with the autotune it’s clearly not crooning, but the there is something reaching for, dare I say pathos and emotion? It is a weird effect to consider, but it really does work.
Of course, the song that has made its way around is this one, which Liam Gallagher does not seem to enjoy:
Suffice to say, co-produced with Pharrell Williams, this song is not wildly profound lyrically. But its effectiveness as funk is undeniable. Maybe Gallagher could write this in an hour, but somehow I don’t think the end product would work quite as well. Thankfully the rest of the songs are pretty awesome too.