Monday, May 20, 2013

Analyzing 'Random Access Memories': Daft Punk's classic record, or just a nice attempt at one?

I've been listening to Random Access Memories a ton this past week, and been trying to ask myself- does the record really live up to hype, or am I just projecting greatness on a "pretty good" record?  Before it came out, Daft Punk said they were trying to make a classic 70s and 80s dance album- did they succeed, or fall short?

I've been pretty into Daft Punk for a few years now, and have heard them since my childhood, so I'm definitely coming from a certain bias, but I'll try my best to set that aside, and really look at this record for what it is-- but I won't stray from comparisons to their previous work.  And if you're curious where I stand on the older records, Discovery is a classic for me, and Homework is great too.  Human After All is Daft Punk's weakest record for me, but still has brilliant moments.  Ultimately, Discovery is number one, so this record attempting to be like what was sampled on Discovery should make it right up my alley, right?

RAM's star studded cast of collaborators initially worried me-- I wanted pure Daft Punk, no additives, since Discovery only features a couple guests.  And when "Get Lucky" was released, I was almost disappointed- the teasers from SNL led me to expect something bigger - but listening to the track more and more made me appreciate it for what it was.  In a way, "Get Lucky" is a microcosm of what RAM is as a whole in some of its characteristics - more on that later.

To expect this album to be some obvious continuation of the previous records is foolish- Daft Punk doesn't do that.  You can see this reaction all across the net.  "They've gone Pop!" seems to be a common one, but it's not really the case- songs like "Touch" and "Giorgio by Moroder" are so far from pop.  When you look at the records back to back, there's a similar style, but instrumentation and performance changes so dramatically- so why or how could you predict what RAM would be?

But at the same time, if you listen hard enough, you can hear those same old Daft Punk themes.  Repetition is a huge part of this album, and it's one I fault it for, because breaking some of the repetition would have given it a better chance to be the classic record it wants to be.  Look at all the potential singles of the album- "Get Lucky" is by all means catchy, but could it have used a different set of chords at some point?  Maybe, maybe not.  Could it have used a guitar solo from legendary Nile Rodgers?  Definitely.  It's a tease to have him jam briefly at the start of the song and then sink into the background.  It's criminal.  "Lose Yourself to Dance" has this problem too-- just the same set of chords and riff.  It's a great riff too, but if you go back and track Chic's hits of the 70s, the songs have very distinct parts, and RAM is missing that because of its lineage in Daft Punk's earlier records.  The old Daft Punk tracks were huge-- you could crank the volume on them, and they'd make a great dance party.  But that just seems to be missing from RAM, and I'm not quite sure why.  The production is fantastic, but why do I get the sense I can only put on a couple of these tracks in a club?

So if the record can't really work so well in a club, does it work well as a pop record?  Unfortunately, the repetition hurts that, too.  Some of the songs work well with verses and choruses, but too many are missing it.  So you have to want a record that's a bit like a house record, but doesn't work as well as the older records for a club, with some Dark Side of the Moon moments on it.

The big thing that I think is really irking everyone who has listened to this record is that it's missing a huge club track.  Sure, "Get Lucky" and "Lose Yourself to Dance" are good pop songs, but they're not the next hits at the Discotheque.  You can remember when you heard "One More Time" (RIP Romanthony) or "Around the World" or "Robot Rock" and you could dial it all the way up and you had a huge club sound.  And then you can take it back to the old 70s and 80s songs and do the same, and they work as club songs too, but in a different way.  And RAM just seems to fall in between, unfortunately-- but almost everyone would excuse it if there was just one track that filled that void, but as far as I can tell (for now... who knows, maybe in 6 months, I'm way off) RAM is missing that.

So I've just ragged on one of the biggest records in a long time, but here's the catch-- I still really love RAM for what it is.  I've listened to it a ton already, and will listen to it plenty more for the next few months. The songs are all perfectly produced, the collaborators are fantastic, Nile Rodgers' riffs are excellent, and only a couple tracks are skips for me.  The themes that reoccur through the record, lyrically and musically, will create awesome remixes- I think we'll see the "huge club sound" that's missing in one of these remixes.

So on one hand, RAM tries valiantly to revive the 70s/80s dance scene, and certainly does in orchestration and production, but I just wish they had steered a little farther from the house roots they come from, and broke some of the repetition- but by no means does it make it a bad record.  It's a great record.  There are insanely catchy melodies.  It marks a new direction for modern dance music that I hope others follow.  But I feel that that one massive club hit is missing that ties the whole thing together, that every record before this seemed to have.

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