Music Reviews
Random Access Memories

Daft Punk Random Access Memories

(Columbia ) Rating - 8/10

In 1948, Pierre Schaeffer founded the very first conservatory for “musique concrète” in Paris, France. Schaeffer’s sole mission was to create an open-minded environment, far removed from the jeering of dissenting critics, where musicians could experiment with recorded sound-manipulation in conjunction with varying degrees of “formal” composition. In doing so, he essentially created headspace for the German “elektronische musik” to occupy in the mid ‘50s -- a movement that would come to influence notable composers such as Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, Karlheniz Stockhausen, and eventually techno/house forerunners, Kraftwerk. With that in mind, it seems at once appropriate and ironic that after decades of electronic music across multiple formats and varieties, that the current incarnation of popular music rests in the Parisian, droid hands of Daft Punk. 

Granted, the French duo has been in this position since 2001’s mega-hit, Discovery, but it seems only in recent years that the group have been made hyperaware of its implications, and thus have responded by sparsely releasing material over the last decade whilst covertly choosing collaborators and meticulously piecing together their live show. I guess that’s why this year’s Random Access Memories has become the supreme musical event of the decade, or at least that’s what the group’s massive, viral marketing campaign would have you believe. 

In recent months, it’s been particularly difficult to avoid a music fan who hasn’t been, in one way or another, affected by the rampant media coverage of such obscure details as track lengths, and the constant barrage of false leaks and fake, fan-made singles. Let’s face it, by this point, many are either over the hype or entirely engulfed in it. That being said, it’s not at all uncommon for an album with as much promotion and media exposure to be completely eviscerated by the monumental weight of critical expectation. Nonetheless, Random Access Memories seems to be one of those rare exceptions to this time-tested standard.

Collaboration is obviously an integral feature to this album, as well as any other Daft Punk release, but something seems different here. On RAM, a guest spot doesn’t necessarily equate to some additional vocal or instrumental talent, or even some sort of guest-approved superlative. Rather, Daft Punk consciously explores each collaborator -- examining every moving part and intricacy of their unique talent, and subsequently designing a track that merges the two entities together seamlessly. There’s a particularly strong synergy between the robots and producer/guitarist Nile Rodgers of Chic fame. Every song Rodgers appears on instantly becomes tighter, groovier, and thrice as infectious as any other Daft track. Get Lucky is obviously the best example of the two coming together in perfect synchronicity, with Rodgers laying down the catchiest disco-funk riff of all time. I could literally live in between the cracks of its tightly woven, 16th-note structure and never once find myself disengaged.

Of course, Pharrell is all over this album as well, appearing on both Get Lucky and Lose Yourself To Dance. While I’ve never been much of a fan of his solo work, he certainly does bring something fresh, if not familiar, to the table -- providing a falsetto vocal that would make the King of Pop himself green with envy. Even Julian Casablancas, a singer I absolutely loathe with every fiber of my being, pulls off perhaps one of his most convincing vocal deliveries ever on Instant Crush, though it is a tad ironic considering he’s auto-tuned the whole way through. Again, here we find Daft Punk enhancing the strengths of its indie rock collaborator, weaving a somewhat bass-heavy, guitar groove for Casablancas to work within.

Touch, the literal apex of the record, features the seemingly unlikely collaboration between the robots and 72 year-old songsmith Paul Williams. However, the collaboration isn’t all that surprising -- Williams' role in the 1974 cult film Phantom of the Paradise was an early influence on Daft Punk, which in turn informed the duo’s humanoid aesthetic. The song itself feels like something right out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, sending the listener tumbling through the celestial heavens, occasionally rocked by a few, sparse asteroid impacts, only to recover and find oneself in an even more beautiful, silent piece of space-frontier than before. Williams’ vocals sound every bit as old and wise as a Yoda-esque mentor, his one and only message is simple: “Hold on / If love is the answer / You’re home.”

However, not every collaborative effort proves entirely fruitful. In fact, the entire final quarter of the record falls into a brief, yet noticeable slump in song-smithing savoir faire. Fragments of Time is particularly grating, featuring one of the tackiest, tasteless vocal hooks in Daft Punk’s entire discography -- and that’s saying something, considering the amount of silliness involved in their early oeuvre. However, Fragments is especially disappointing given it features Todd Edwards, who worked on the utterly superb Discovery track Face To Face. And while Doin’ It Right may feature the super-reverb vocals of Panda Bear, it quickly runs out of ideas around mid-track and becomes bogged down by its own repetition. 

But yet again, Daft Punk haven’t always been as self-serious and progressive as they are on this album. Consider Around The World, which is perhaps the most delightfully monotonous track in the duo’s entire discography. However, Doin’ It Right lacks the spirit and tenacity of that song, and thus feels slightly out of pace with the rest of RAM. But don’t mistake, the record doesn’t end on a low note at all. Album closer Contact is a blustering din of exploding, modular synthesizers and bombastic percussion -- almost like a space shuttle reentering Earth’s atmosphere, jettisoning stardust and space debris as its thrusters heat up and ignite.

It seems that with every passing Daft Punk album, the French house duo find themselves continuing in Grand Maestro Schaeffer’s provocative footsteps -- providing a safe place for both the band and their collaborators to push forward and experiment with new ideas and sounds outside of their normal repertoire. However, that’s not to imply that the group are fostering some sort of innovative, cutting-edge style, but rather breathing new life into genres that were left for dead long ago -- finding new ways to reinterpret and present those sounds to the digital age. In fact, what Daft Punk have done on Random Access Memories could be seen as a methodically curated, musical museum of the future, rather than a conservatory for experimental collaboration. But maybe I’m missing the point? Maybe I should just do as Daft Punk instructs and “Let the music in tonight / Just turn on the music.”