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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Vampire Weekend’s “Modern Vampires of the City”

It seems as though Vampire Weekend is trying to stray away from being Vampire Weekend. To put it more accurately, the New York-based quartet are recognized today for their preppy fashion sense, post-collegiate anthems, and Afro-pop oriented sound. Garnering critical praise and an indie-going-on-mainstream status, Vampire Weekend has also acquired a cult following from music listeners, who most likely associate the band as the “ultimate indie pop group.” Unfortunately, this has made it inevitable for the group to leave their comfort zone and to keep continuing to make the same predictable music. Despite the increase of popularity and sold-out concerts, it already seemed like people knew what was in store for new Vampire Weekend music. Luckily, all four band members have taken the extra mile to produce one of this year’s most anticipated and highly acclaimed albums, their third full-length record Modern Vampires of the City.

After the release of their 2008 cult classic self-titled debut and 2010’s similarly appealing Contra, Vampire Weekend used the opportunity to take extra measures and enhance their foreseeable sound by experimenting with different genres. Even if this meant losing fans, their artistic integrity would still remain intact, especially after the circulation of an outrageous hoax of their rumored album cover and title Lemon Sounds in late January. With a three year recording process and taken place in various locations, including New York, Los Angeles, and Martha’s Vineyard, the “anti-publicity” of MVOTC kept the mystery that was beginning to emanate off Vampire Weekend and their predictable aura. Thankfully, the four-man outfit received help from record producer Ariel Rechtshaid, whose mainstream work includes Usher, Charli XCX, and Snoop Lion. Notwithstanding the aid from an unconventional source, Rechtshaid helped Vampire Weekend distance away from the sound they’ve been so heavily associated with, which also meant going back to the drawing board several times and essentially scrapping songs that could’ve easily been catchy, chart-topping hits.

With bewitching lyrics written by lead singer Ezra Koneig and a flawless production, Modern Vampires of the City is an unpredictably insightful, heartwarming, and mesmerizing album that incorporates diverse sounds without losing sight of some of the band’s old practical rhythms. So far, the record has impressed both fans, critics, and even haters, some of whom having encountered a divine change-of-heart thanks to this album. Most of MVOTC‘s best songs can be considered instant masterpieces, much like their previous songs “A-Punk,” “Oxford Comma,” “Cousins,” and “Holiday.” But more importantly, it encompasses much more complex storytelling, darker themes, and unusual recording assets, including pitch shifting on the hyperactive, toe-tapping lead single “Diane Young.” The noisy 60s-influenced jive is one of the most energetic songs off Modern Vampires of the City, as well as one of the many highlights.

With the exception of the organ driven “Don’t Lie,” the fast paced “Finger Back,” and the ukelele-strumming “Worship You,” the majority of the album also evokes a dramatic ambience, which again exemplifies Vampire Weekend’s exploration of diverse sounds. Opener “Obvious Bicycle” instantly sets off a cathartic reaction of subtlety, as the sounds of piano riffs and (what sounds like) a pogo stick play in the background. Two standout tracks in the first half of the record — the atheist anthem “Unbelievers” and the haunting “Step” — are very different in style and lyrics, but both are equally catchy and masterful. “Ya Hey,” another enchanting tune, can be considered the weirdest song off MVOTC, with a pipsqueak vocal shouting the title intermittently, but nevertheless is another great addition to the impeccable work of Vampire Weekend. The sharp violins playing in the beginning of “Everlasting Arms” already grabs you enough to listen to the rest; the ambient “Hannah Hunt” is a delightful love ballad, despite the title deriving from one of Koneig’s college classmates (not lovers); “Hudson” is perhaps their darkest song, with the insertion of a ghostly backup choir and pouding snares, but it’s still very promising. Though the last song, “Young Lion,” is less than two minutes, its spine-chilling, piano driven composition and angelic vocals, is just as spellbinding as the rest of the album.

The album artwork, which isn’t the vintage image of a girl in a yellow, droopy dress that circulated in January, is a picture of Manhattan, taken in 1966 during the smoggiest day in New York. Despite the image’s bleak quality (and the fact that the “smoggiest day in New York” killed 169 people), it invokes a somewhat dystopian future for America, if not to say for Vampire Weekend’s future. But understanding this idea of the past and the future demonstrates the group’s visual aesthetic and analytical insight on life and the world we live in. Perhaps Modern Vampires of the City has not only changed the group’s sound, but indicates how mature they really are as artists and as individuals.

Vampire Weekend has come a long way from being soft-spoken Columbia University undergrads to a musically acclaimed band of 29-year-olds whose sensibility shouldn’t be underestimated by their youth. Somehow, Vampire Weekend has really grown and evolved into an iconic collective and thankfully, the product of their astute attitudes is another great album and one to remember for years to come.

Grade: A
Recommended: Yes
Top Tracks: “Obvious Bicycle,” “Unbelievers,” “Step,” “Diane Young,” “Ya Hey,” “Young Lion”  

        

Phoenix’s “Bankrupt!”

Being one of the most popular bands in music currently must be a daunting experience. Especially if one of those bands were to win the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album, produce two #1 smash hits, venture on four world tours, and recently headline the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. In this case, that band would be French-based quartet Phoenix. Since their inception as a band, Phoenix has released five albums, including this year’s Bankrupt!. However, much like other famous indie-rock groups, they began with almost zero recognition. Their 2000 retro-funk debut United and 2004’s nonchalant follow-up Alphabetical played small parts in defining the early age of indie rock music, though it had little effect on the American radio charts. Luckily, two years later, the release of their indie breakout It’s Never Been Like That intrigued music listeners and critics alike. Even though Phoenix had somewhat found a place in the music industry, their obscurity hindered them from becoming the alt-rock, synth-pop outfit they are known as today. Fortunately, they got the huge breakthrough they deserved in 2009 with the release of their brilliant fourth record Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Combining the elements of alternative lo-fi and electro-rock, Wolfgang was not only an unexpected commercial and critical success, but a Grammy-winning musical masterpiece. Their two awesome mega-hits, “Lisztomania” and “1901,” became the paradigms of Phoenix’s defining attributes as a rock band, which led them to perform both tunes on Saturday Night Live, as well as in commercials and many other venues. Four years later, the Versailles outfit releases Bankrupt!, another exceptional record but far different from its predecessor.

On Wolfgang, Phoenix sounds relaxed, fluid, and incredibly catchy. On Bankrupt!, Phoenix sounds much more ecstatic, but equally discordant and strained. It’s as though they are aware of their success and popularity, which, in this case, can be overwhelming, thus resulting in a tense and anxious (albeit appealing) record. Bankrupt! is heavy on synths and hooks and light on lyrics and introspection, which says something about Phoenix’s central focus on the album’s sound. Although Phoenix incorporates a diverse set of K-pop fusion, acoustic guitar riffs, and ethereal synthesizers, the result is slightly unsettling and manic, unlike Wolfgang‘s calm and composed rhythms.

Bankrupt! begins with the epic, heavily promoted crowd-pleaser “Entertainment,” which is one of Phoenix’s most mainstream songs to date. Despite “Entertainment”‘s lively Japanese-infused production, memorable resonance, and diverse remixes from Dinosaur Jr., Blood Orange, and Dirty Projectors, it contradicts itself with the self-conscious lyricism: The uplifting chorus builds up with grandeur, but ends with lead singer Thomas Mars’ confusing proclamation, “I’d rather be alone.” The fact that “Entertainment” sounds like a riveting live performance rebutes Mars’ solidarity, making the song an arguably adequate Bankrupt! tune, in terms of both lyrics and sound. Despite this semi-setback, the rest of Bankrupt!‘s first half encompasses the album’s best tracks — “The Real Thing,” “SOS In Bel Air,” “Trying to Be Cool” — and an overall enjoyable tone. “The Real Thing” and “SOS In Bel Air” share a simliar uptempo cadence, but each track contains some of Phoenix’s finest moments as musicians. “Trying to Be Cool” opens with a gentle guitar riff, followed by handclaps, electronic twirls, and mid-90s art pop. The themes of Bankrupt! — loneliness, anxiety, glamour, materialism, fashion, romanticism, and the cult of celebrity — are seen within these three standout tracks, as well in some of the second half of Bankrupt!.

Right smack in the middle of Phoenix’s fifth record is the 7-minute title track, which marks the endpoint of Bankrupt!‘s steady pacing. The title track, similar in length and ambition to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix‘s vivacious “Love Like a Sunset,” and It’s Never Been Like That‘s “North,” bears the most diverse moments in Phoenix’s career, as well as their most unnerving. Beginning with a quiet, double-speed guitar riff and ambient electro noises, the title track stops short of 2 minutes with an echoing piano, followed by what seems like an undeclared “bass drop” and a cacophony of harpsichords, twinkly keyboard harmonies, and stuttering, strobe-light synthesizers. This moment in Bankrupt! isn’t their worst, but perhaps their most confusing, considering that Phoenix deviates from using heavy electronic in the majority of their songs. However, the chaotic beat stops suddenly again and fortunately turns into an enchanting, acoustic-filled dreamscape of elation, accompanied with Mars’ dreamy voice.

However, like the exclamation point in the album’s title, Bankrupt!‘s second half tends to overemphasize the utilization of synth-pop. But, it nevertheless maintains Phoenix’s sincerity and authenticity as a close-knit rock group. Following the title track is the sleazy sonic jive “Drakkar Noir,” which transitions gradually into the washed out, slow jam “Chloroform.” Both songs signify Phoenix’s French influence with a mix of seductiveness and electro lo-fi. Ostensibly, “Chloroform” sounds a little like a slowed-down version of “1901,” which makes sense, since both songs were paired together during Phoenix’s Coachella performance with R. Kelly’s famous hits “Ignition” and “I’m a Flirt.” “Don’t” is another exceptional Bankrupt! tune, but the tedious chorus makes the song seem a lot longer than it already sounds. Phoenix successfully attempts to use 60s-influenced rock and “sha-la-la-las” with late 80s-influenced shoegaze on the dazzling “Bourgeois.” Bankrupt! closer “Oblique City” is unfortunately the album’s weakest track. Unlike most of Phoenix’s epic album closers, such as Wolfgang’s spill-chilling “Armistice,” “Oblique City” deceptively reverberates recycled Phoenix material into a mediocre conclusion.

Though Bankrupt! may not be as stellar as Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, it still proves that Phoenix can make great sound and audiences dance at live performances. Phoenix’s outstanding members, which include the aforementioned Mars, bassist Deck d’Arcy, keyboardist Laurent Brancowitz, and guitarist Christian Mazzalai, are more determined than ever with Bankrupt!, though their ambition might have gotten caught up with the distress and apprehension over their recent success. In some cases, that kind of superstardom usually gets deep into the head of the band and ultimately steers them into the wrong direction. With Phoenix, superstardom has neither steered them into the wrong nor the right direction, but into a place of excited and anxious contemplation.

Grade: B+
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Entertainment,” “The Real Thing,” “SOS in Bel Air,” “Trying to Be Cool”

Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Mosquito”

The late-90s and early 2000s was a period where post-punk, garage-rock music was revived. Novelty music groups, such as The Strokes, Bloc Party, The Rapture, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, developed and invigorated East Coast clubs. Lo-fi and alternative rock were enhanced and adopted by many up-and-coming bands. One of these bands, the aforementioned Yeah Yeah Yeahs, have especially evolved over the course of a decade with three records (2003’s Fever to Tell, 2006’s Show Your Bones, and 2009’s It’s Blitz!). The New-York based trio have also performed in front of young audiences and recently played at SXSW and Coachella. This year, the YYYs have returned with a somewhat fresh new look (lead singer Karen O’s dyed blonde hair, perhaps) and a brand new record, Mosquito.

In recent interviews, Karen O and her bandmates, Nick Zinner and Brain Chase, have discussed their ideas and thought processes on the production of Mosquito and the general notions on their idiosyncratic sound as a band. Despite their sincerity and innovative spirit, Mosquito surprisingly falls flat. Compared to their excellent, dance-pop LP It’s Blitz! and their punk-rock debut Fever to Tell, Mosquito suffers from tonal inconsistencies, bizarre artwork, an ambiguous theme, and a confusing message. Sometimes, though, you could understand why Mosquito has this unpredictable aura, since the YYYs are always unpredictable. However, Mosquito is more sporadically shambolic than brilliantly, unintentionally clever.

Fortunately, Mosquito is not without its highlights: Early into the album is “Sacrilege,” a jittery pop-rock song, with some semi-religious undertones and a message about sexual irreverence and its result of overwhelming guilt. Most of it is mysterious, until it ends with a passionate gospel choir shouting “Sacrilege!,” as if the message they were conveying turned from insightful to exaggerated and delirious. Neverthless, it’s an original and highly diverse track off Mosquito. “Subway” and “Wedding Song” are quiet, alt-rock ballads about romance, which may sound cheap and banal. But with Karen O’s breathy vocals, Nick Zinner’s gentle guitar licks, and Brian Chase’s nice-and-easy drumming, both tunes are worthy of something off of the clumsy Mosquito. The electro-rock jams “Always” and “Despair” aren’t as powerful or as addictive as “Sacrilege,” but they’re nice to listen to.

Unfortunately, Mosquito deteriorates into utter mediocrity with head-scratching tracks like “Under the Earth,” “Slave,” and “Area 52,” possibly the YYYs weirdest and worst song. Why sing about aliens? What happened to singing about defiance in electro-dance power ballads like “Heads Will Roll?” I understand that Karen O’s outlandish persona and errratic voice make the YYYs different from other alt-rock outfits, but making the kind of songs from Mosquito, such as the queasy “Buried Alive” and the noisy title track, is artistically going in the wrong direction. When Karen O emphatically and brashly yells on “Mosquito,” “We’ll suck your blood! We’ll suck your blood! We’ll suck your blood!,” it becomes too edgy and unconvincing and strongly stresses the topic at hand — not abrasiveness, not feminine dignity, but mosquitos.

For the most part, Mosquito is full of blaring, absurd rock songs that should be eradicated and used for other mediocre alt-rock bands. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs can do a lot better, since they’re already equipped with evocative songwriting, head-banging music, and dignified ethos. Mosquito is a confusing, underwhelming, and incredulous result of the YYYs. But despite this setback, the YYYs have already come so far in the music world, it hardly matters. Though it sounds corny, it’s all about the production, the artistic genuinity, and Karen O boisterously singing her heart out at concerts, even if it concerns the evils of parasites.

Grade: C
Recommended: No
Suggested Tracks: “Sacrilege,” “Subway,” “Always,” “Despair,” “Wedding Song”    

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”