News Column

Sounds: Hold Tight to the Past of Pop

May 30, 2013

YellowBrix

May 30--Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it also poses a challenge to music fans. The new Daft Punk album, "Random Access Memories," puts critics and fans in a sort of hall of mirrors when it comes to understanding how the distance of time can affect how we appreciate both music generally and the band that was once at the popular forefront of electronic dance music.

Some of the hype surrounding the new album comes from the fondness for Daft Punk that has developed since they stormed the world with the release of "Discovery" in 2001. While the band's popularity was always greater outside the United States, it had moments of cultural relevance here: the clever fan-created hand video for "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" that went viral on YouTube; Kanye West sampling the same song for his own track "Stronger"; a couple of name-drops in LCD Soundsystem songs, including "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House."

The band deserves that credit and more, including the No. 1 chart position of "Random Access Memories." Guy Manuel de Homem Christo and Thomas Bangalter, the brains behind Daft Punk, earned their popular status thanks to catchy music and a dynamite live presentation that few DJs have been able to match.

But their latest album is not a glimpse of the future of music. Rather, it's a reminder that there are threads that tie popular music especially popular dance music together. It's an admission from the techno producers that today's club music is essentially the same as our parents' disco jams. So while we patiently awaited Daft Punk's new album, growing fonder of their past in the process, Daft Punk was growing fonder of a time even more distant: the 1970s.

The band that is beloved as the cutting-edge future of music made their latest album with legendary disco producer Nile Rodgers and the guy who wrote "Rainbow Connection" for Kermit the Frog. As fans anticipated the next neon-drenched step into a future of laser beams and jet packs, Daft Punk put on their platform shoes and dropped into a funky groove.

Which, it turns out, is exactly what fans wanted.

The future is a scary place that we can't comprehend or understand. Art that pushes comprehension runs the risk of being ignored. Daft Punk was smart enough to know that their fans didn't want the future, they wanted the past. They wanted 2001 and "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." The only way Daft Punk could beat those expectations was to go even further back, to a place made even more fond by its absence.

The fact is that Daft Punk has always been a bit of a throwback band, re-mixing the past to make it seem like a recognizable future of tin ray guns and herky jerky robots. The band's purview has been classic rock and disco, with a twist of vocoder to give it a faux-futuristic feel. The final product is always close enough to Moby or Fatboy Slim to be palatable as popular dance music, but there is a more studied vibe keeping things interesting under the surface.

Like all Daft Punk's music, "Random Access Memories" is OK. It's not groundbreaking, but it reminds us of a musical past that, right or wrong, keeps looking better and better as the years go by.

JONAS' IN-TOWN PICK: VaMos at 909 Saloon. A new local funk project with a little bit of Latin flair. Saturday at 8 p.m.

OUT-OF-TOWN PICK: The "Summerland Tour" at Innsbrook After Hours in Glen Allen. All your '90s alt-rock faves: Filter, Live, Sponge and Everclear. Wednesday at 6 p.m.

LISTENING TO: "Country Love" by The Gourds. If you plan to party under the stars this summer, take this song with you.

Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036 -- jbeals@freelancestar.com

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