Ambition permeates almost every bit of this album – something to be lauded in a time where music has become culturally devalued as important in itself.
Daft Punk’s latest album Random Access Memories resists easy categorisation. Undoubtedly an Event album, accompanied by an all-star guest list and Vice-sponsored short making-of documentary series, it is at times also a startlingly collection of disparate elements. The guest list includes 70s crooner Paul Williams, Pharell Williams, house/UK garage pioneer Todd “the God” Edwards, disco producer Georgio Moroder, indie artists Panda Bear and Julian Casablanca, and a host of veteran session musicians.
Though clearly an album deeply embedded in electronic dance music, this is Daft Punk’s most organic album yet. In lead-up interviews, the duo have spoken of “[recreating] what we used to do with machines and samplers, but with people.” It many ways, the album recalls the disco albums of the late 70s, with pulsing live drums and session musicians aiming for machinic precision. First single “Get Lucky” works well as a mission statement, with Pharell’s falsetto cooing over a lean repetitive groove looped to disco sublimity.
It’s definitely an audacious move in this age of computer generated EDM, and a risky one with few peers. One point of comparison is house gods Masters At Work’s 1997 Nuyorican Soul, which featured a similarly stellar guestlist and nostalgic viewpoint. But where Nuyorican Soul painstakingly recreated the disco past, Random Access Memories insistently foregrounds its contemporary status with vocoded vocals on almost every track. “Instant Crush” features Julian Casablancas from The Strokes crooning through a vocoder over a chunky New Wave groove. It’s instantly memorable and expertly balances the retro and futurist elements. “Fragments of Memories” features a nicely lazy vocal from Todd Edwards, looking back on a soon-ending holiday.
This is not to say that everything works quite so well, though. The eight-minute long “Touch” features the hammy Broadway vocals of Paul Williams alongside a children’s choir and an extremely cheesy disco section, and other discordant synth sections. It’s packed with ideas, and some of the string orchestration is lovely, but it’s a strange journey that doesn’t quite gel. In interviews, the duo have suggested this song to be the centrepiece of the album. Williams finishes the “you’ve given me too much to feel/you’ve almost convinced I’m real/I need something more, I need something… more.”
Given Daft Punk’s penchant for robotic masks, it’s an interesting twist on posthumanity to be sure, but one that makes sense in the light of Bangalter’s statement to the Guardian that “[We tried] to make robotic voices sound the most human they’ve ever sounded, in terms of expressivity and emotion.” A debateable claim. With a few exceptions – the monotonic “Doin It Right” – the vocoders work, but they don’t really connote very much at all.
But what does it mean, if anything? What is the point of making robots sound human? With few lyrics, it’s hard to really see the record as staking out much of a claim linguistically. Similarly, the cobbled-together signifiers of the 70s and 80s are pleasurable, but not really saying very much at all.
Random Access Memories is undoubtedly a unique sounding album, well-crafted in every sense. It sounds like a million dollars in an electronic moment where almost everything is made on laptops and the same few Digital Audio Workstations. Ambition permeates almost every bit of the album – something to be lauded in a time where music has become culturally devalued as important in itself.
It is a very good album. But a masterwork it is not, not really pulling all of these elements together into a completely convincing, whole artistic statement. It doesn’t really feel like it means anything at all. Random access memories indeed.
With her distinctive calling-card single “Video Games” and album Born To Die, Lana Del Rey has been one of the most hotly debated artists of the past year. Initially feted for her “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” sound and DIY Youtube aesthetic, [...]
With her distinctive calling-card single “Video Games” and album Born To Die, Lana Del Rey has been one of the most hotly debated artists of the past year. Initially feted for her “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” sound and DIY Youtube aesthetic, the blog love quickly faded with some flat live performance and the news that, far from a trailer park ingenue, Ms Del Rey is the daughter of a rich investor. Lana haters became as ubiquitous–and as vocal–as her defenders. It’s surprising, then, that neither have really been out in force with the release of her new “Paradise Edition” of Born to Die. Is the hype over?
Leeds Festival often gets over-shadowed by its counterpart Reading, and has a reputation for a weakened line up. But this year, Festival Republic put on a fantastic weekend, and here is why…
24th-26th August, Bramham Park.
The waiting was over, and things couldn’t have been better. The sun was making a rare appearance, bags are packed, tickets in hand and excitement growing as thousands of fans from all over the country headed to what would be their new home for the next 5 days.
On arrival, the atmosphere was electric, what a fantastic Bank Holiday weekend there was to look forward too. Friendly smiles, laughter and banter were everywhere. It was a long journey from the car park to the camp site, but with the adrenaline and anticipation building for the weekend of great music, the heavy load of belongings on backs (many thanks to the ‘tinnies’) seemed a small price to pay.
Leeds Festival often gets over-shadowed by its counterpart Reading, and has a reputation for a weakened line up. But in my eyes, Festival Republic put on a fantastic weekend, and here is why…
Long before anyone else, had heard of Gaga, Mark Bowden predicted which songs would be dancefloor hits. Here he selects some of his favorite DJ podcasts for us.
Looking for great dance music for the gym and never know what to put on your I-pod in the gym or while cooking, well, now you don’t need to worry because you can download free dance music podcasts. I sat down with the very goodlooking and charming Mark Bowden who runs Hyperactive, the famous music promotions company in Europe. Bowden spots hits before anyone else – every day thousands of songs cross his desk from cheesy pop tracks to the hardest drum n bass. Hyperactive has a record for consistent success rate and quality releases, with UK number ones from the likes of Lady Gaga to Madonna and a following that includes many of the world’s greatest DJs. Long before anyone else, had heard of Gaga, Mark predicted which songs would be dancefloor hits. It was an extra treat, then, to have Mark select some of his favorite DJ podcasts for us.
Canadian electropop group the Junior Boys have released a string of consistently great albums, and new record It’s All True is not exception.
Junior Boys, It’s All True (Domino Records 2011)
In a field where careers can last as long as a remix and whole genres are ephemeral, Canadian electropop group Junior Boys have had a surprisingly long career. Starting off with their 2004 masterpiece Last Exit album, Junior Boys have released a string of consistently great albums, and new record It’s All True is not exception.
When I spoke to Junior Boys’ frontman Jeremy Greenspan earlier this year for Billboard magazine, he sounded like a conflicted man–caught between burnout with the industry and revitalisation from recording part of this album in China. While the lyrics of the album certainly reflect this struggle, Greenspan and bandmate Matt Didemus have crafted another set of immaculately written and produced songs.
The Book of Mormon soundtrack tries, with varying degrees of success, to satirize three different subjects: Mormons, Broadway and Western ignorance about Africa, respectively.
When The Book of Mormon opened on Broadway in March, it became an immediate commercial and critical success. Since the show is sold out for some time and scalpers are commanding upwards of nine hundred dollars per seat, most of us won’t be seeing it any time soon. Instead, we’re making do with the musical score, composed by Bobby Lopez (Avenue Q) and released in May to predictably impressive sales as Broadway albums go.
If the music is any indication, The Book of Mormon tries, with varying degrees of success, to satirize three different subjects: Mormons, Broadway and Western ignorance about Africa, respectively. And the Mormon satire, though no one knew what to predict, comes with intelligence, care and respect. One of the most touching—yes, touching—numbers of all is in some ways the most profane. Nineteen year old Mormon missionary to Uganda, Elder Price (Andy Rannells), sings the rousing verses of “I Believe” with such conviction that it’s impossible to interpret the song as mere satire. This is no mean feat given that the song summarizes aspects of Mormon belief with lyrics like, “I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob,” that “the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri” and that, “in 1978, God changed his mind about black people!*”
It’s just that the song also reveals the character’s basic decency. He wants to be ethical and good and, yes, help people. When the orchestra swells and the gospel choir arrives and Price sings, “I believe that Satan has a hold of you,” the lyric is strangely moving. You see, this is the moment at which Price overcomes his fear in the face of Uganda’s political violence. The particulars of the faith seem unimportant given the courage it gives him. By the time Price comes out with,“I know that I must go and do the things my God commands,” you’ll want to pump your fist in the air in celebration. “I Believe” makes everything clear: The music is not a parody of Mormonism but a parody of faith. But it’s also a love letter to faith.
“Do you fill the time with negative nervousness or with reverence, mindfulness and joy?” Witmer asks.
Denison Witmer’s music is thoughtful and understated and lends itself to rainy days and quiet contemplation. A multi-instrumentalist whose folk music sounds more otherworldly—and less roots-based—than what you’ve heard in the past, Witmer writes songs at once approachable and elusive. His lyrics can be deceptively straightforward at times, only developing more complex layers several listens in.
Witmer’s new album, The Ones Who Wait, to be released on April 26, is no exception. Witmer says that the new album came together somewhat more organically than those past, as he grieved his father’s death and adjusted to collaborator Devin Greenwood’s move to New York City. Though he told me he normally draws themes out of songs he’s created over a period of time, this album came to revolve thematically around the loss of his father without advanced planning. “In some ways,” Witmer says, “this was better for the album because it gave me a sense of pause. I let it show me the direction it was taking rather than the other way around.”
Witmer says that this affected his musical decisions as well. Though he usually writes careful first drafts with a clear sense of which instruments should be used and how the recording should sound, he chose to “[do] a lot of different things with these songs.” The aim was surrender to the creative process without being “too hung up on what we would do with the songs.” Instead, he says, “we worried about that later.” This allowed for a more thoughtful process in which ideas could be tried and tested, and creative possibilities explored more fully.
The year that was, and the year that could have been…
It’s difficult to write a “best of” list nowadays. It seems like every newspaper, magazine, website and blog has their own list of tunes of the year, all sagely repeating roughly the same list. This is quite an implausible feat given the sheer variety of music currently available, perhaps more than ever before at any point of history. So what’s a critic to do?
Paranoia, of course, had long been a MJ motif from 1983′s “Billie Jean” onwards.
Last weekend, the world stood still as “Breaking News,” the first of a rumoured 250 unreleased Michael Jackson songs was unleashed on the internet. “Breaking News” was supposed to be the first single from the posthumous album Michael, but just as quickly as it had appeared it disappeared in a cloud of controversy, replaced by a duet with Akon (always words to strike fear into the heart of the most gungho pop fan).
“Breaking News” sounds like the Platonic ideal of late period MJ, a confused mess of paranoid musings about his antagonistic relationship with the media. The song begins with snippets of news broadcasts talking about the king of Pop (just as History’s “Tabloid Junkie” did), before a hard rnb beat kicks in. The verse features a heavily processed Jackson speaking about himself in the third person—“everyone wanting a piece of Michael Jackson/reporters stalking the moves of Michael Jackson—while in the chorus, he muses, “why is it strange that I would fall in love/who is that boogeyman you’re thinking of?” (more…)
Janelle Monáe is making her own rules, and we can only hope that she continues to.
In my last piece about music for Global Comment, I bemoaned the state of contemporary rnb and hiphop, which has few bright spots as far as I’m concerned—a malaise I should hasten to add it shares with most pop, indie and non-dubstep electronic music (dubstep is peeking its head into the overground with Magnetic Man, which gives me some hope). It’s like fast food – music’s everywhere, but the choices all make you feel slightly queasy and leave you hungry an hour later.
What I did mention was the one great exception in contemporary rnb/soul/hiphop – the inimitable Janelle Monáe. After a buzz building EP in 2007 called Metropolis Suite I, Monáe’s debut album The ArchAndroid Suites II and III has been gathering an ever-growing following since its release in May this year. In this age of instant gratification and quickly forgotten hype magnets, Monáe appears to be the real deal – a genuine artist, capable of stunning artistic invention and popular appeal. (more…)
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