Friday, August 21, 2015

Nitpickery: Random Access Memories

Hey y'all.  So I went on and on about how Daft Punk compares to Infected Mushroom, and my overall conclusion is that Infected Mushroom has aged well, and Daft Punk hasn't aged so much as completely changed gears.  To be fair, some of that is due to the popularity of Daft Punk and subsequent fan expectation.  More of it has to do with Daft Punk's general sound; because of IM's classical background, they can do any type of sound and make it their own.  Because Daft Punk is a sampling band, they have less flexibility in the types of sounds and influences they have.

As far as my own background with Daft Punk is, I wasn't a pure fan of theirs back in their heyday. Sure, I liked some of their songs, but I was focused on other things rather than them.  At one point I did buy a compilation album of theirs, and that was when I really started to like them -- now I own Discovery and Interstella 5555.  In other words, I was kinda late to the Daft Punk party.  All the same I did learn to understand why they were such an electronic powerhouse.  Their intelligent use of sampling was highly catchy and invigorating.  At the same time, part of me is suspicious of their fame, wondering if their masks and popular early albums disguised a couple of guys who weren't ready for their explosion of popularity.

But at the moment I'm here to complain about Random Access Memories.  Because why not?

I found out about Random Access Memories when I was at the store buying Discovery.  So I went home and started listening to the samples online, and was pretty disappointed.  Like I mentioned in my previous blog about this, it's okay to dislike RAM because it's different.  Daft Punk hasn't ever tried to do this kind of work, and it was bound to turn away people.  Daft Punk also never established itself as flexible, so this kind of sound was definitely out of nowhere.

What made it so odd was that DP had none of the natural album progression that all good albums have: a collection of songs with higher and lower tempo, which flow into each other appropriately. All but one of these songs have dragging tempo, making listening to the full album a chore.  I'm a little mystified that Daft Punk thought that was a good idea.  Maybe it was because the collaborations they worked with made them develop each song individually, not much concerned with the total package.  I dunno.  You'd think a producer or something would have mentioned that.

I guess I could comment on the album cover before I review the songs.  Let's sum it up in one word: meh.  There's no creativity here at all.  It's just the extremely common two face mashup (first two books of the Dark Templar trilogy, a My Little Pony novel, Incredible Hulk cover, Breaking Bad poster, etc) and the title written in signature font. This is worse than the cover of Vicious Delicious. While Daft Punk album covers have always been simple, that simplicity was elevated by how each cover was designed.  Such as, one cover is "Daft Punk" written in liquid metal and another is their band name stitched on a leather jacket.  Very nice.  RAM's cover is just a spiffier version of what someone could make on MS Paint after a quick internet image search.  Lazy.

MS Paint, at your service.
But let's get into the songs now.

===== Random Access Memories =====

1. Give Life back to Music
There's a clear message behind this song.  It's a fairly okay track.  Nothing spectacular or appropriate for an album opener.  While this is a nice, relaxing little diddy, it's fairly generic.  It doesn't sound like anything that needs the musical power of Daft Punk to exist.  All the same, it's pleasant and inoffensive.  A bit like elevator music.

2. The Game of Love
Everything about this song is a cliche.  From the title to the lyrics, the sound to the vocoder use, every single element of this song has been done before.  And done better elsewhere.  It's not "stab yourself in the ears" bad, but it is extremely sleep-inducing.  You'd think that after a subdued album opener, they'd pump things up with a vibrant second song.  Not so much.  This just sucks the energy out of the album.

3. Giorgio by Moroder
This song calls to mind an image of very fancy, well dressed socialites sipping martinis and telling each other "Yes, yes, I am into electronica."  And then they proceed to talk about everything else under the sun besides electronic music.

While certainly Giovanni Giorgio is important in the electronic world, his spoken words about ruin the song.  He isn't specifically the problem.  It's just that the very point of music is to say things without actually saying them, and in particular electronic music strives to do so without words or only a few of them.  People can listen to a song ten times in a row, but few will listen to the same story over and over again.

To be fair, the parts without words were pretty good.  I don't mind some nice jazz club sounds. They're pretty nice.  Again with the dragging tempo, but for this song by itself, the sounds are nice and uplifting.  The words, unfortunately, drag this down into the cheese territory.  As do the violin sounds about five minutes in.  Would it be asking too much just to have a nice jazz club song?  Not that I hate the guitars at the end, though.

And on top of all that, nothing about the song is experimental or new.  Pretty ironic considering the words are about a guy trying to be unique.

4. Within
Echoes of The Game of Love: cheesy words, sleepy music, dragging tempo.  This is the fourth track on the album, and already the whole thing is pretty draining.  Emo kid chill.  This is Linkin Park on ice.

5. Instant Crush
Alright, here we go!  This tempo, while not the most intense thing ever, is at least better than all the previous tracks.  In fact, I would call this song the best on the album.  No really, it's great.  But let's all be honest here.  This is a Julian Casablancas song.  The Strokes could have put this on their album and not one person would have suspected Daft Punk had anything to do with it.  Interesting, considering DP is the one who came up with it.

Still, I love Instant Crush.  The lyrics are actually poetic and not easily interpreted.  The tune is hypnotic and emotional without being cheese.  The singing is great, and I can listen to this song over and over again.  It's fun to think of a meaning to the lyrics.  My guess is that the singer is in love with a girl, but she's with someone else.  So the singer is finally giving up and just being with someone else that he sees as a friend, ready to give that up if the girl he really wants changes her mind.

The music video, however, is dull.  This song makes me think of outer space or being on the road, something high energy.  Not mannequins.  And then the video is essentially a remake of the children's story The Tin Soldier, one leg and all.  Here, let me post a link to the official music video, as well as a video made for the Kinect that I feel is far superior.  It's not the whole song, but it has a more fitting a set of imagery.


6. Lose Yourself to Dance
S'alright.  Clearly this is dancing music, not listening music.  While there's nothing wrong with that, again the dragging tempo brings down the energy of the album.  At the same time, when taken alone, this song is pretty good.  Nothing phenomenal, but it's the perfect dance floor song when the DJ wants to bring down the energy level but keep people dancing.  Every electronic musician needs songs like this for live performances.

On the downside, this song can be pretty boring to just listen to.  If there are no intense visuals or you're not in a club/dance party, then this song is pretty repetitive.  On the other hand, when you're dancing, this song does work perfectly.  It would just better if it had some sort of complexity that makes it transition to listening better.  On the other hand, it's great for fan videos.

Soul Train:

The above link is one of my favorites for this video.  It's a bunch of people in weird clothes having fun.  It's simple, but at the same time it works great, despite the low video quality.  In fact, it's so fitting with this song, that I'm tempted to believe Daft Punk ripped it off for the official video.

Official video:

The only reason I feel like this isn't a true rip-off is that it's, well, lazy.  While Nile Rodger's hair and the translucent instruments are visually interesting, little else about this video is.  It's just Daft Punk, Pharrell Williams, and Nile Rodgers hanging out on a stage.  For the whole song.  The extras can't even dance because they're placed on steps instead of a real dance floor. Boring.  You've seen fifteen seconds of it, you've seen the whole thing.

Instead, let's focus on better videos.

Creepy Doll Version:
Spinning Sign Version:

The creepy version is a nice example of video editing, and really fun.  It reminds me of the creep factor of older Daft Punk videos.  However, I have to applaud the spinning sign version as the absolute best.  Not only are the guys in this video amazingly talented, but they also put real production into the video, putting in those little moments that really make a video.  Like a nice old lady handing a guy his glasses, or bystanders admiring the talent of the sign spinners.

Both videos, however, prove my point.  Lose Yourself to Dance is a background song, one whose value depends on whatever's happening alongside the playing of the music.

7. Touch
...I don't even know what to say about this song.  It's trying so hard, too hard, in so many ways.  The opening is "creepy" and weird, the next part is cheese, and it rises into symphonic cheese.  And holy crap, those lyrics!  "Kiss, suddenly alive, happiness arrive, hunger like a storm, how do I begin?" You begin by making sense, bro.

I don't get this song at all.  It's like a Daft Punk attempt to be Infected Mushroom, in connecting seemingly unrelated sounds to form an interesting whole.  Thing is, when IM does it, they do it with sounds that are in the same family, and are at least somewhat subtle.  DP's version is like being in a room with a drunk person who is trying to hit on you.  He's a friendly drunk, but you don't want to get too close to him all the same.

8. Get Lucky
No.  I always skip this song.  If it weren't for the radio, I wouldn't have heard this song at all.  And where was it playing?  A Dunkin Donuts.  A place where kids will likely be. Given that we live in a highly sexualized culture, you'd think someone would start caring that we're exposing young ones to bad decision making so early on.

What disappoints me about this song is that Daft Punk used to be subtle in the past.  For example, Something About Us is a sweet, seductive song without being slutty.  And now DP has jumped straight into trash club music.  Y'know, the kind about stupid, entitled people going to the club to kill brain cells and sleep around with whatever's in the vicinity (Another example is Justice's "Tthhee Ppaarrttyy").  Everyone who calls Infected Mushroom mainstream should go wash out their mouths with soap -- Get Lucky is the dictionary definition of mainstream.

But it's not simply about promoting dumb ideas to young people.  It's about, well, cleanliness.  Some of my friends introduced me to an old fashioned band, one that played simple, 40s style music.  They were dedicated to being family friendly, and you know what?  The music was actually fun.  It felt so good to be listening to something innocent and relaxing.  Sure, I'm an adult and I know how adults are, but the fact of the matter is that clean music makes people feel refreshed. 

It's easy to be immature.  Too easy.  If you're going for immature, at least go for hilariously stupid like You are so F-d, and don't get radio playtime.  Skipped.

9. Beyond
Whaaa?  Am I listening to a Disney movie soundtrack from fifty years ago?  Huh?  Oh, wait, it's just an intro to a Daft Punk song.  Well, that's the single most baffling intro I've ever heard.  And after the baffling we're subjected to slow-tempo nausea with trivial, faux-poetry lyrics.  I wish DP would remember that it takes more than vocoder to make a Daft Punk song.

Eh, it's at least hypnotic.  I've never been drunk, but I can't imagine it feels much different from this song.  To some degree, I kid.  Beyond the intro the song actually gets kinda nice.  Sure, the lyrics are frivolous, but hey, welcome to electronic music. 

10.  Motherboard
As one of the two songs that was really and truly electronic and not particularly mainstream, I had high expectations for this song.  After a few repeat listens, however, it doesn't really meet those expectations.  It's alright, I suppose.  It just feels like part of the soundtrack to a nature documentary, with lots of sped up shots of plants growing and animals building nests.  And then someone on the net had to ruin the part around four minutes for me with a nasty visual image, and I can't listen to the song without thinking about it.  Don't worry, I won't share it with you.

It's okay, though.  Really.  It's just trying too hard to be emotional.  Ends up neither failing hard nor wowing.

11. Fragments of Time
I love this song for all the wrong reasons.  It's not even slightly Daft Punk, and on first listen I was incredulous that such a song could ever get stamped with their label.  At the same time, I'm a 90s kid. This song is perfect for an 80s/90s sitcom show.  No, seriously, it's right up there with the Family Matters theme.  Can't you just imagine a show with this playing along with the opening credits?  I'd imagine that it goes to a comedy show, one where four time cops live in their apartment on the outskirts of the time/space continuum, and all the silly adventures they have.  I need to get my friends together so we can create a fake Fragments of Time opening credits sequence.

In other words, this song is stupid, but it's stupid fun.

12. Doin' it Right
Ugh, no.  It's appalling that some people think this song is good.  It's not danceable, and it's too simple to be listenable.  Not to mention that the repetitive, lazy lyrics overwhelm the extremely simple beat.  This is what electronic music detractors use to criticize the genre.  Boring and annoying. However, there was potential to this song.

Without Panda Bear:

Now, this isn't a full instrumental, but if you listen to the point indicated in the link, you'll hear a no vocals clip.  That part is actually kind of nice.  So if they had stripped away all the lyrics and just played around with the sounds in the background, then this could have been a nice, odd, experimental track.  As is, it's not worth listening to.

Is this album over yet?

13. Contact
Great, the usage of space recordings.  I haven't heard that one before.  Nope.  How experimental.

Space Walk, by Lemon Jelly. []

Ugh, I don't care anymore.  A stale attempt to please older fans with some apparent edge.  This song, the last on the album (besides a bonus track I'm going to ignore) is the frail attempt to appeal to older fans. However, since Daft Punk's heyday was more about eclectic samples than long, sustained electronic pieces, this is just outside their capabilities.

I'll say it straightforward.  Daft Punk can't do a real eight minute breakdown.  They're not that talented of an electronic band.  Sure, they can put samples together in a pleasing manner (or they could in the past), but they are not primo musicians that can create the lengthy tracks typical of trance, jungle, and techno.  I can't believe I'm saying this, but after listening to so much Infected Mushroom, I know exactly how much of a step down Random Access Memories is.  People can whine all they like about what IM has become, but let's face it.  "Mainstream" Infected Mushroom has ten times the talent of modern Daft Punk.

Keep in mind what I'm saying, however.  I'm not saying that Infected Mushroom is super great, and nothing can compare to it.  IM is one of many great electronic artists, and IM just happens to be the one that made me realize how Daft Punk is rather less than.  I'm sure there are a substantial number of other electronic artists out there who would have given me the same revelation, had I reviewed them as I have Infected Mushroom.  I've just suddenly grown out of Daft Punk, now that I understand how shallow their music and lyrics really are.

The theme of this Random Access Memories is Giorgio by Moroder; it's the story of trying way too hard, and thus catapulting oneself straight into pretentiousness and cheese.  There was some good there, but it got slathered in the overemotional ego of Daft Punk's current fame.  It's almost as if Daft Punk is trying hard to fit in with some upper crust of pop culture, and because they're not of high society stuff, they have to make extra effort to be appreciated.  And thus end up peculiar outsiders to a culture that ultimately keeps them around for its own amusement, not as equals.

In other words, Daft Punk has sold out.  While I'll always hold onto the songs of their halcyon golden days, I don't have a lot of hope for their future.

A note from the future:

Okay, so I wrote all that before I finished reviewing all of Daft Punk's albums.  It seems a little mean, now that I read it again, but I'm reluctant to edit it now because of how I felt when writing it.  Realizing that a favorite, popular band is less than I once thought it was is a very strange feeling, one I wanted to share.  You know that popular bands are shallow all the time, but maybe because this was an electronic band, I didn't think it could fall prey to the same mainstream failings as so many others.  Naive, no?

But after coming back from reviewing all their other stuff, I think I have a new appreciation for what Daft Punk is.  Despite anything negative I wrote here (or in other blogs), Daft Punk seems to have had a lot more artistic control over what they've been doing than I originally supposed.  They are artists, and as much as Infected Mushroom is a representative of Israel's rich musical history, Daft Punk is likewise representative of French artistry, which exists in many forms.  Daft Punk's usage of robotic identity, messages in their music, and wonky music videos represents not merely musical expression, but their expression of art in the various ways they know how.

They're still sell-outs, though.  Don't nobody need no Daft Punk Legos.

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