Wednesday, May 29, 2013

FIRST LISTEN: Random Access Memories

France's Reclusive Beat Making Robots Return

 #1 in the U.S., #1 among robots
Debate may forever rage over the viability of the EDM (Electronic Dance Music) movement. To detractors,  sitting in front of a computer, turning some knobs and dials on a synthesizer, looping a beat or sample from an older piece of music--or any number of other sound-generating activities not involving the playing of an ACTUAL musical instrument--does not qualify as 'music.'  These formalists often argue that even hybrid acts--Chromeo, LCD Soundsystem, or Cut Copy come to mind--that combine electronic and amplified or acoustic elements--occupy a different (read: lower) rung on the Ladder of Musical Purism. Rap music, to take another example, is often dismissed outright by these skeptics, and lumped in for good measure are anyone with the words 'electronic,' or 'dance' associated with them.

So you can forgive Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter--known the world over as the genre's most influential and enigmatic partnership, Daft Punk--for being a tad prickly about the state of things in the genre they single-handedly exploded into a global sensation.

"Electronic music right now is in it's comfort zone, and it's not moving one inch," Bangalter recently told Rolling Stone. "That's not what artists are supposed to do."

"It's not deep, it's surface," de Homem-Christo offered.

Williams, Rodgers: rounding out Punk's funk
Perhaps as a response to the now inescapable presence of EDM on top-40 pop radio, television shows and commercial endorsements, but more likely the result of an itch to reinvent themselves, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo have charted a new course on their fourth studio full-length, Random Access Memories.

The overall result should not totally surprise longtime fans of the duo. There is still the trademark presence of vocoder, talk box, and Auto Tune-drenched  vocals, and the disco-laced tempos on tracks like "Get Lucky," but also some experimental departures. The album is packed with live studio instrumentation, most notably by former Chic founder and guitar stalwart Nile Rodgers on the aforementioned "Lucky," but also live drum and bass parts supplied by studio contributors culled from bands previously assembled by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Madonna, and Sting.

Rounded out with guest vocal contributions from the like of the Strokes' Jullian Casablancas on  "Instant Crush," and former DP collaborator Todd Edwards on the snappy, R&B-tinged "Fragments of Time," and Random Access Memories goes far beyond the dance-and-house club anthems the group became best known for. "We wanted to do what we used to do with machines and samplers," Bangalter said in that same interview, "but with people."

Early returns suggest they have succeeded in a big way. One week after its release, Memories sits atop the Billboard 200--Daft Punk's first number one album stateside--and "Get Lucky" (feat. Pharrell Williams) is finding an audience across several different album/singles charts and radio formats.

Without a doubt, custom-built synthesizers, computerized loops, and banks of drum machines brought Daft Punk to this point. But their desire to branch out has added a textured new layer to their sound, while keeping their EDM roots intact. And experimentation, no matter what any music purist may say, is so very Rock and Roll.

Daft Punk's Random Access Memories was released May 21st under exclusive license to Columbia Records, a Division of Sony Music Entertainment.

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