Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories”

Once again, Daft Punk reminds us that there is still magic within music. Ever since their small beginnings in the early 90s, the French electronic duo has demonstrated music’s allure in ways that have made them one of the most prominent groups in music today. They’ve created arresting visuals for their elaborate live performances, donned stylish robot costumes, collaborated with a few of the industry’s best musicians, and made some of the the most influential music in modern times. The integration of French house music and synth-pop developed Daft Punk’s first record, 1997’s Homework. From then on, they’ve transitioned into disco and electronic on their colorful follow-up, 2001’s Discovery, which was both commercially successful and produced some of the most memorable songs of the past two decades (“One More Time,” “Digital Love,” “Harder Better Faster Stronger”). Despite the huge setbacks of 2005’s lifeless Human After All, their surreal film debut Electroma, and their vapid contribution to the Tron: Legacy soundtrack, Daft Punk obtained a popular crowd of fans after releasing their dazzling, Grammy-winning live album Alive 2007. However, the two-man group remained reserved from the spotlight and weren’t heard from for a while.

The shape-shifting maestros behind the robot helmets, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, have always kept their idea of what music should sound like by incorporating distinct influences from diverse artists and making it their own. With the booming of technology in their earlier years, Daft Punk have mostly recorded and sampled with computers. However, with technology’s prominence in the music industry nowadays, it makes the whole idea of making real music seem obsolete, for Bangalter and Homem-Christo. That’s why the inseparable duo have accentuated the old-fashioned feel of music from the 1970s and 1980s into their highly anticipated new record Random Access Memories.

Most Daft Punk fans would expect the band to return to their EDM roots, but Random Access Memories is a slight departure from their club-friendly sound. Instead, RAM is a multi-dimensional record that revitalizes generations of jazz, funk, rock n’ roll, pop, electronic, and disco. Though this will most likely come as a surprise and as confusion from devoted fans, Daft Punk’s top-notch craft is nevertheless commendable. This time around, the two Frenchmen have recruited several unconventional collaborators for RAM (as shown on the Collaborators web series): Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers, singer/producer Pharrell Williams, Animal Collective’s Panda Bear, The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, actor/musician Paul Williams, vocalist/DJ Todd Edwards, Italian record producer Giorgio Moroder, pianist Chilly Gonzales, and old friend DJ Falcon. With this variety of artists, Random Access Memories contains an electrifying and visceral sound. But despite all its praiseworthy production, it might just be Random Access Memories’ heavy marketing, glossy look, and promising songs that are getting everyone pumped for the new album.

Though the conception of RAM started in 2008, the announcement of a new Daft Punk album was kept quiet, until collaborator Nile Rodgers revealed last year that one would be coming soon. Eventually, in the beginning of this year, Daft Punk left their label EMI Records for Columbia and promoted a mysterious image of what would eventually become RAM‘s album cover. Soon after, snippets of their instantly catchy lead single “Get Lucky” played in commercials during Saturday Night Live and, eventually, the announcement of the album’s title and an iTunes pre-order. Though Daft Punk are known for their obscurity, the heavy promotion for RAM sustained throughout March and April, appearing on billboards, television ads, and the aforementioned web series. Because the hype kept increasing, it seems as though this was a strategy for Daft Punk to intrigue fans, even though it could either hold them on or leave them hanging.

Personally, I think Random Access Memories is a huge step-up from its predecessors and worth listening to. However, some of the album’s elements might disappoint fans. To give an example, the first half of the idiosyncratic record is a bit underwhelming: Opener “Give Life Back to Music” builds up with Air-esque guitar riffs, but ultimately turns into a monotonous melody; “The Game of Love” and “Within” are morose, downtempo love ballads that have moments of keen emotionality but mostly do nothing with the rest; “Lose Yourself to Dance” has the potential to be memorable, especially with Pharrell William’s captivating falsetto, but drags on way too soon. However, two of RAM‘s standout tracks, “Giorgio by Moroder” and “Instant Crush,” save the first half from becoming tedious. The 9-minute “Giorgio by Moroder” is an epic, stellar clash of funky synthesizers that zoom in and out throughout until it ends with a rock-induced jam. In addition, the beginning contains a 2-minute commentary of the Italian producer, who references some of the album’s central themes of combining random-access memory technology and the human experience. “Instant Crush” features a mellow, vocoded Julian Casablancas and some guitar riffs and drum machines that reverberate a similar sound to Casablancas’ band The Strokes.

“Touch,” the Paul Williams-featured, psychedelic centerpiece to Random Access Memories, might the craziest, strangest, and most fascinating song in Daft Punk’s career, but its unusual sound is a bit risky. After the haunting vocals in the beginning, Paul Williams’ soft tenor makes it impossible to stop listening. However, “Touch” might catch off you guard, as it flickers with disco-influenced guitar wobbles, trumpets, vintage vocoders, and a children’s choir. But for some reason, its bewitching “Day in the Life” quality could make “Touch” an understated favorite off the album. RAM‘s second half is much steadier, smoother, and more lively than the rest of Random Access Memories: The star single “Get Lucky” features a timeless guitar-driven melody produced by Nile Rodgers and remarkable vocals from Pharrell Williams; The enthralling distorted guitars of “Fragments of Time” is almost like a sequel to Discovery‘s “Digital Love;” guest Panda Bear’s pitch-perfect vocals make “Doin It Right” an exceptional track; and the cinematic, 2001: A Space Odyssey vibe on album closer “Contact” ends Random Access Memories with an enlightening effect.

Daft Punk have been on a long journey with music with their many transformations. Their influential music and visual aesthetics have captivated audiences across the world, but Daft Punk have preserved the different sounds and rhythms of genre-bending music as well. Though the hype of Random Access Memories might’ve stunted people’s prediction of the album, the album demonstrates the fascinating notion that music has magic to it, a concept that has again reinforces Daft Punk one of the most influential groups in music history.

Grade: B+
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Giorgio by Moroder,” “Instant Crush,” “Get Lucky,” “Doin’ It Right”

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Kurt Vile’s “Wakin On a Pretty Daze”

There is, unfortunately, a dearth of modern alt-pop, folk-rock singer-songwriters that are omnipresent in mainstream music today. The enchanting tunes of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and The Doobie Brothers will forever have a profound and lasting effect on music lovers, but nowadays, it’s much harder to perserve folk-rock music, with Euro-pop and EDM taking over. Only a few acts, such as Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Local Natives, and The Men, have cultivated rock music as both an aesthetic expression and have kept an indie/mainstream status. One particular rocker, Kurt Vile, contains all these qualities as well, but his artistic integrity, ingenious songwriting, and deft production is something to be reckoned with.

After creating the indie rock The War on Drugs in 2008 and simultaneously releasing two solo albums, Kurt Vile was still an unknown, unprecedented artist. That is, until 2011, when his third record, Smoke Ring for My Halo, achieved critical praise and significantly increased recognition. Much like some lo-fi bands, such as The Strokes, and acoustic soloists, such as Father John Misty, Kurt Vile has attained an intriguing, nonchalant sound that only few modern rockers have today. This year, Vile has continued to impress critics and fans with Walkin on a Pretty Daze, a hypnotic and ambitious album that blends psychedelic lo-fi with folk-rock, indie rock, and alt-pop effortlessly.

Compared to the laid-back Smoke Ring for My Halo, Vile’s fourth record is more dream-like, as well as much longer in length and more emotional in depth. The 9-minute and 30-second title track opener flows perfectly with Vile’s hazy tenor, trippy guitar licks, and refined drums. Daze continues with Lynyrd Skynyrd-esque rock ballads (“KV Crimes,” “Too Hard,” “Shame Chamber”), late 80s art pop jams (“Was All Talk,” “Snowflakes are Dancing”), and dramatic, acoustic-driven jives (“Girl Called Alex,” “Goldtone”). Most Daze tracks are retro and stylish, but the album also maintains a modern resonance, with dizzying tracks like “Never Run Away.” The best thing about Daze, and Vile in general, is that no matter the subject, Vile likes to keep it on the bright side. His lyrics and themes in both Halo and Daze focus on optimism, happiness, love, and peace. These may sound like the quintessential aspects of a flower-power, stoner-hippie, but it works well for Vile.

Grade: A
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Walkin on a Pretty Day,” “KV Crimes,” “Girl Named Alex,” “Never Run Away,”  “Shame Chamber”

                 

Afraid of Heights – Wavves

Nathan Williams, the young vocalist of San Diego surf rock group Wavves, is one busy guy. After being featured on Big Boi’s sophomore record and creating three consecutive Wavves albums in 2008, 2009, and 2010, respectively, Williams has found the time to formulate this year’s anticipated Afraid of Heights. Since their previously acclaimed record King of the Beach, Williams has made some bold decisions with enhancing his band’s sound and label (they switched record labels, from Fat Possum to Mom + Pop). Although Afraid of Heights isn’t as vibrant as its predecessor or as psychedelic as Wavves’ first two self-titled albums, it still provides a plethora of diverse and engaging music. Wavves mixes early 90s punk rock with modern surf/indie/prog rock and some garage and psychedelic lo-fi. Their sound then translates into the endless depths of Afraid of Heights to intensify and stimulate the album’s themes of depression, death, paranoia, self-destruction, sociopathy, loneliness, and psychological fears (hence the title Afraid of Heights).

Despite these negative and disheartening subjects, the album actually emanates a vivid and lively atmosphere. Some songs are easy to listen to, such as the twinkly-turned-head-banging opener “Sail to the Sun,” the Weezer-esque tune “Demon to Lean On,” and the woozy lo-fi title track. However, other   tracks are much more complicated, both thematically and audibly: “Mystic” is a snippet of rumbly grunge rock, with Williams’ bellowing voice being buried by noise; “Gimme a Knife” is loud and brash, but its lyrics, such as “I loved you, Jesus/ You raped the world/ I feel defeated/ Guess I’ll go surf,” are even more bizarre. 

Nevertheless, Afraid of Heights is Wavves at their most enhanced sound and their most elaborate thematically. The album continues to give more open background, with songs such as “Cop,” an honest albeit odd love song about a gay protagonist killing a policeman; “Hippies is Punks,” a noise-pop headbanger about misery and lovesickness; “I Can’t Dream,” the catchy and hauntingly dramatic album closer; “Paranoid,” an upbeat jam with the words “I don’t know” repeated several times to emphasize and match the song’s title; and “Dog,” another catchy rock ballad.  

If you think Wavves or frontman Nathan Williams intend to influence sociopathy or nihilism in Afraid of Heights, that’s not what they are trying to do. With their aesthetic abilities and lyrical idiosyncrasy,  Wavves have created an infectious headphones album to relate to, to feel sympathy and empathy for the band members, or just to feel free as an individual.

Grade: A-
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Sail to the Sun,” “Demon to Lean On,” “Dog, “Paranoid,” “I Can’t Dream,” “Hippies is Punks”

Lonerism – Tame Impala

Many have not heard of new age, psychedelic rock group Tame Impala before. Their unusual, unique, and stylish sound has received little recognition. But their excellent 2010 debut Innerspeakerreceived acclaim and number 4 on the Australian music charts, as they originate from Australia. And so far, their career is off to a great start. Now, with the release of their brand new album Lonerism, Tame Impala has received some recognition, as it has been #34 on the US music charts. Lonerism beautifully expresses the topics of loneliness (referring to the album’s title), detachment, and self-angst, with a perfect use of banging drums, piano harmonies, electronic rock, and dreamy vocals. The album begins with a whisper slowly getting louder, segueing into the vibrant jam, “Be Above It.” Lead vocalist Kevin Parker uses his crooning falsetto voice to layout the second track “Endors Toi.” Next comes “Apocalypse Dreams,” a powerful, intriguing 6-minute track that separates internally into two parts – similar to Radiohead’s 1997 4-parter hit, “Paranoid Android” – and each part signifies the diverse culture of psychedelic rock as well as electronic groove: The first part is a fast-paced drum beat, with Parker’s echoing falsetto marking a high point in the album overall; the second part interludes to a slower paced guitar-filled jam. The next few songs echo and resemble many psychedelic bands, including the Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth, Pink Floyd, and the Beatles: “Mind Mischief” is a light-hearted tune, filled with a beach-y vibe; another dreamy jingle, “Music to Walk Home By,” that is definitely a song to walk home by; an almost Paul McCartney-sounding jive, “Why Won’t They Talk to Me?”; and “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” a wonderful song, reverberating escapism and daydreaming. The next track off Lonerismis one authentic outlier of Tame Impala’s psychedelic jams called “Keep On Lying,” which provides a heavy use of electronic keyboard, ambient voices, and a tiny usage of Parker’s voice, which is okay in this case. Transition to another great rock Tame Impala song that is by far my favorite off Lonerism: “Elephant,” which blends perfectly with both funky electronic beats and fantastic drum thumps. This probably will be one of Tame Impala’s most memorable tracks, if you listen to Lonerismas a whole. “She Just Won’t Believe Me” is a short but amazingly crazy interlude into another 6-minute track “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Can Control,” which echoes vocals and piano riffs similar to Paul Simon. The album closer, “Sun’s Coming Up,” is a positive outlier against all other tracks off of Tame Impala’s new record: it is a plain but eloquent piano ballad, both dramatic and groovy, contrasting Tame Impala’s softer side from its resonating noise, and a beautiful ending to Lonerism.
Although most of the music in Lonerism captivates a listener better than its lyrics, it still provides a thorough and striking outlook on our life-long downfalls and isolations. Even the album artwork describes “lonerism” itself, depicting a vintage image of the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, France (can be seen at top of review). The image ties into the themes of isolation of Lonerism with a metal gate separating the viewer from the people in the Gardens. Tame Impala definitely has a lot to offer, considering that many people are unaware of their existence even, although they are recognizable to some. But even so, they provide an abundance of evocative music that should rank up to better recognition.
Grade: A
Recommended: Yes