“I heard you guys in the movies…”
Daft Punk fans must be among the most generous and warm-hearted in popular music: three years ago, the duo’s decision to provide a by-the-numbers sci-fi action flick with a by-the-numbers sci-fi action flick score was greeted with rapturous praise, and the payoff was twofold: 1. Daft Punk is now popular enough to be featured in the weekly Target ad, and 2. They now offer their fans a brilliantly entertaining new album.
It’s kind of a nice inversion to say that this is Homem-Christo and Bangalter’s sly rejiggering of the abbreviation “EDM”: Dance Music this certainly is, but not so much “Electronic” as “Electric”: its plugged-in instrumentation tends to more guitar and bass than synthesizer, with actual flesh and blood human beings (from Nile Rodgers to Julian Casablancas to Panda Bear to Paul Willams [!]) plucking, banging, crooning, and laying down a groove that rivals anything Daft Punk has come up with before, but with a beating pulse that hearkens back to the salad days of Earth, Wind and Fire, a 70’s episode of Soul Train, or the work of Giorgio Moroder, whose spectral voice offers its blessings to the sonic changeup: “Nobody told me what to do and there was no preconception of what to do.”
“Give Life Back to Music” is the opening manifesto: “Let the music of your life / Give life back to music,” set to a handclapping groove straight from Chic’s dance floor, with guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. emulating Rodgers perfectly; the man himself himself powers the lushly peppy “Get Lucky” and the sweaty “Lose Yourself to Dance.” There are guest vocal highlights aplenty, including Casablancas’ sweet “Instant Crush,” and Williams (to throw in another movie reference, yes he’s “Still Alive“) fronting a 250-piece orchestra on the epic eight-minute “Touch” : lines like ““Tell me what you see / A tourist in a dream / A half forgotten song” had to have been written with the diminutive Phantom of the Paradise madman in mind.
The question of Vocoder vs Auto-tune is a matter of taste; personally, I could live without either one, so the processed vocals remain a bit of a distancing factor for me; to cite another sci-fi action movie, even at its best, Random Access Memories sometimes reminds me of the Kirk-Spock scene from Star Trek Into Darkness that parodies the climax of Wrath of Khan: sincere sentiment, but delivered in a manner that is archly silly: “Within” is a lovely tune that would be far more moving (“There are so many things that I don’t understand / There’s a world within me I cannot explain“) if it didn’t sound as though it were being sung by fish.
In contrast with TRON: Legacy, the new documentary, Mistaken for Strangers, would appear to be a more sober affair, as it charts the course of the troubled relationship between National frontman Matt Berninger and his far-less-successful brother Tom: while I’m looking forward to seeing it, The National’s recorded catalog gives such a complete litany of Berninger’s ruminations on responsibility, and living up to expectations of family, and yourself (“I’m going through an awkward phase / I wish that I could rise above / But I stay down“) , that I wonder if the film actually has much to add to that. Trouble Will Find Me is another solid musical outing for The National: the Dessners’ grooves usually take a while to fully kick in, but this time out, there’s a few that emerge immediately from the wall of sonic sobriety, including the startlingly peppy “Don’t Swallow the Cap” and the silkily melodic “Graceless,” with Berninger barely able to keep a straight face as he puns on the name: “Grace / Put the flowers you found in a vase.” The National has never quite changed my life, but yours may be another matter: this is a thoughtful, occasionally almost entertaining, album that will repay the time spent exploring it.
Bonamassa continues to tone down his busy-busy-busy guitar noodling (he’s generally not an adherent of the idea that the space between notes might be the most important part of the blues), and he’s rhythmically tighter than usual, though that sense of restraint tips to the edge of blandness. Hart’s vocals are still marked more by her swaggering ultra-retro delivery than by any particular sense of nuance or grasp. The song choices veer away from the obvious here and there (“Sunday Kind of Love”?), but any woman who wants to take on Tina Turner, Al Green, Lucinda Williams, Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday should probably take it one step at a time; by the time we get to “Strange Fruit,” she really does sound overwhelmed. Not a terrible album by any means, but I half suspect that the only reason I took the time to write about it was to have an excuse to post the album cover.
Hey, Everybody Likes Free…
It’s not necessary to be familiar with Adult Swim, or to particularly like Dr. Pepper, to be appreciative of their teaming up to provide this free downloadable sampler of contemporary garage-rock bands. There’s a few more or less familiar names (Black Lips, King Khan), but mostly it’s fifteen lovely slabs of loud, raw, raggedy shit; occasionally competent, always energetic, paying tribute to mentors ranging from Sky Saxon to Tom Verlaine to Lux Interior. Covered in Ice goes in for a bit of rough power pop in “King Louie’s Missing Monuments,” JEFF the Brotherhood invokes Blue Cheer on “Melting Place,” The Gories rewrite the Velvets’ “Run Run Run” into the sneaky “On the Run,” and Mind Spiders’ “They Lie” is right out of the first wave of post-Pistols Britpunk. And, frankly, the whole thing is worth the price (you’ll note what I did there) for King Khan’s two contributions: the open-hearted “Strange Ways” and the slinky “Discreate Disguise.”
Other Notable 5/21 Releases
Baby Caught the Bus, Clairy Browne & the Bangin’ Rackettes
A Bad Girl in Harlem, New Politics
The Beach Boys Live – The 50th Anniversary Tour
Black Dog Barking, Airbourne
Defcon 5…4…3…2…1, Man or Astroman?
Epic Obsession, Burning Rain
Excuse My French, French Montana
Flash Featuring Ray Bennett & Colin Carter
Forward, Brand New Heavies
Genesis, Chieli Minucci & Special Efx
Go Back Home, Audra McDonald
The Greatest Generation, The Wonder Years
Heres Willy Moon, Willy Moon
Howl, JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound
Impersonator, Majical Cloudz
Land of New Hope, Timo Tolkki’s Avalon
Lay My Soul to Waste, Pale Horse Named Death
LOVE LUST FAITH + DREAMS, Thirty Seconds To Mars
Me, James McCartney
Quartette Humaine, Bob James & David Sanborn
Sailing the Seas of Cheese, Primus (also available on audio cassette!)
Talon of the Hawk, Front Bottoms
Tap: John Zorn’s Book of Angels, Vol. 20, Pat Metheny
Tour De Force, Poodles
True Believers, Darius Rucker
Vanishing Americans, Indigenous