News Column

Daft Punk's 'Random Access Memories' Dances Through the Decades

May 23, 2013

Howard Cohen

French dance duo Daft Punk -- Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo --have done more to propel futuristic electronic dance music (EDM) onto festival stages than any other act since the release of 1997's Homework. Now, the pair, having exhausted EDM's possibilities and critical of its current sound, point to EDM's future by looking to the past on their first studio set in eight years.

On the ambitious, vaguely conceptual Random Access Memories, arguably the year's most anticipated pop album, Daft Punk eschew the digital coldness of machine-made music by recording nearly the entire 70-minute set with top-shelf studio musicians like drummers Omar Hakim (Dire Straits) and Quincy Jones' go-to beat meister, John "JR" Robinson. Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers still nails the scratching, syncopated riffs that made Le Freak an inescapable disco hit 35 years ago on his two funky contributions, Get Lucky and Lose Yourself to Dance which also feature input from Pharrell Williams.

Giorgio Moroder, the musical mastermind behind Donna Summer in the 1970s, gets a whole nine-minute track of his own and it's a masterstroke. Giorgio by Moroder, a documentary in song , shouldn't work. For its first few minutes, Moroder simply talks interview-style about the evolution of his music -- and disco itself -- atop a loping bass line tempo. The Italian producer lectures about his early years in Germany and his creation of an album that sounds very much like Summer's 1977 opus, I Remember Yesterday.

"I wanted to do an album with the sounds of the '50s, the sounds of the '60s, the sounds of the '70s and a sound of the future. I know the synthesizer. Why don't I use the synthesizer which is the sound of the future? I didn't have any idea what to do so we put a click track on a 24-track, which was synced to a Moog module. I knew that could be the sound of the future but I didn't realize the impact it would be."

Interesting chatter for pop culture junkies, but how often would one want to listen to a producer's narration? But, ingeniously, the music takes over, evoking the decades Moroder discusses, and morphs into a hypnotic disco groove and swirls headlong into 21st century club dynamics replete with a string quartet and guitar solo. Each play reveals new dimensions.

Daft Punk even manage to lure '70s easy listening songwriter/actor Paul Williams ( Evergreen, The Rainbow Connection) onto the dance floor for Touch, a truly odd, shape-shifting, eight-minute epic. Williams portrays a robot who seeks humanity -- much in keeping with the album's central theme.

Along the way, Random Access Memories offers bits of melancholia on The Game of Love, a ballad that uses dance to offer a brief respite from daily disappointments. Fragments of Time is a slice of sunny California pop/rock, of all things, and the sci-fi courting Contact brings this giddy, indulgent, affecting album to a prog-rock-flavored close.

Dance music's The Dark Side of the Moon meets Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is a revelation -- a full-fledged album in a singles market that will have you studying its painstakingly detailed analog grooves at the gym, on the dance floor and on the home stereo all the way through awards season.

Download: Giorgio by Moroder, Touch, Fragments of Time.

Follow@HowardCohen on Twitter.


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