Daft Punk Random Access Memories (Columbia) - So Daft Punk, the folks who popularized the EDM sound, and brought a formerly marginal genre of electronica to both arenas and the cineplex (their soundtrack for the sci-fi fantasy Tron: Legacy debuted on the Billboard Top Ten, and was their highest charting album, until this one) are feeling remorseful over the techno monster they've unleashed upon the world, and now want to go back to basics. For the French wunderkinds, this means paying homage to the electronic pioneers who've preceded them, and revisiting both the textures and sonic excess of the 70's - an era whose benchmark was excess. Since audacity has been their calling card from Day One, this isn't such a radical departure - in fact, it would be the natural progression following a career spanning sixteen years of autonomous and anonymous spectacle.
Random Access Memories revels in its overarching ambition and musical collaborations with the likes of Giorgio Moroder, Nile "Chic" Rogers, and AM-pop craftsman Paul Williams. To assert they haven't completely ensconced themselves in a time warp, they enlist chart contemporaries Pharrell Williams, Julian Casablancas and Panda Bear to provide vocal assist as they turn the beat around, with detours through the discoteques of that decade's heyday. The duo have even gone so far as to publicly lambaste EDM, citing it as soulless and blaming our ever-improving technology as the killer of truly great songwriting. Yes guys, over-reliance on sampling gets repetitive (not to mention old) after a while, but as a great musician once told me, it isn't the technology that's the culprit - a truly creative composer can use any medium at his disposal, and create great art with it.
And I'd have to agree. Once you get past the conceit masquerading as encomium here, you are left to audition the tracks purely on sonic merits, and in doing so, Random Access Memories turns out to be a mixed bag. The Chic-inspired "Lose Yourself To Dance" appropriately uses Nile Rogers to replicate the choppy guitar riffs that made his sound a trademark on tunes like "Le Freak" and "Good Times", and Pharrell Williams' soulful falsetto is the icing on the throwback cake. "Giorgio by Moroder" has the iconic disco producer discussing the techniques he employed on tracks for Donna Summer, backed by a percolating synthesizer and Roland TR-808 drum pattern. No doubt, this is the sincerest form of flattery, but once the initial novelty wears off, one is left feeling underwhelmed.
It's as if Daft Punk had forgotten that even in the milieu of EDM, the group managed to surprise us now and then. The two surprises here are not only the most unlikely, but they leave a lasting impression. The first is "Doin' It Right": it begins like some bonus track from Justin Timberlake's Future Sex/Love Sounds, with a vocoder-ized refrain of "Everybody will be dancing when the feeling is right/Everybody will be dancing tonite, doin' it right" juxtaposed against a percussive backdrop reminiscent of Boss' Dr. Rhythm machine. But when Animal Collective's Panda Bear begins singing, it feels like a glorious intersecting of old and new, and his harmonies (devoid of the excess reverb normally present on AC's recordings) convey warmth amidst the robotic minimalism of the keys and percussion.
The second surprise occurs on "Touch", easily the most ambitious track on the album. I don't know what these guys did to convince Paul Williams to work with them, but the results are unexpectedly rewarding. Swirling computer noises and spacey synths float like a lost science fiction movie, while Williams' processed voice intones "Touch, I remember touch/I need something more........in my mind." Then Williams sings in his fragile, emotive style, devoid of effects, and his yearning for connection becomes hauntingly sincere: "A picture came with touch/I remember/A painting in my mind/A tourist in a dream, a visitor/A half forgotten song/Where do I belong?"
But then the song veers abruptly into, you-guessed-it, disco territory. It shouldn't work, and I should want to bitch-slap Bangalter and Homem-Christo for their nerve, but it's a brief detour, dissolving into an orchestral refrain of "If love is the answer, you're home, hold on" before settling into a groove that wouldn't be the least out of place on a Gary Wilson record. Which made me wonder: why didn't they approach Wilson? I'm sure he would've been interested, but I'm thinking Gary Wilson is a little too obscure, too out-there for these guys, and besides, that collaboration wouldn't receive the same degree of press as Rolodexing the man who wrote songs for Helen Reddy, The Carpenters and Three Dog Night. Maybe this is just a phase they're going through - who knows? Their next album might find Daft Punk exhibiting contrition for their scathing indictments of EDM, and begging for forgiveness. On some level, they've got a few things to explain here, but overall, their earnest experimentation and musical acumen on Random Access Memories make it a pleasant enough diversion. Grade: B+
Mountain Sounds Mountain Sounds (The Foundlings) - Guitarist Tim Hoyt and singer/pianist Franc Castillejos (late of the band project Estates) reunite after a five-year hiatus as Mountain Sounds, melding alt-rock with emo-folk touches on their debut album. Opening with the Black Keys-ish "Lion And The Bee", the song benefits from Castillejos' meditation on nature and isolation ("I throw all my precious stones into the ocean/Is there a path to walk alone?"), Hoyt's workman-like guitar licks and a classic rock beat. This segues unfettered into "Find That Man", featuring the contrasting harmonies of Hoyt and Castillejos and a deceptively-upbeat arrangement that belies lyrics like "I imagined blood on the wall/Just a brand new thought to entertain/I woke to the sound of an office fire/Is there a cure for wishful dreaming?"
Audiophiles will have no problem identifying the varied influences on Mountain Sounds. The iridescent harmonies and musical arrangement on "I Do What I'm Allowed" are eerily comparable to Michael Penn's brilliant MP4: Days of a Lost Time Accident disc; the piano on "Find That Man" has shades of Ben Folds; "When You Have Money"'s template nods to Iron and Wine and Death Cab For Cutie. Yet nowhere on this release do you get the impression Mountain Sounds are trying to ape any one (or several) influence(s) - they are merely distilling the sonic trappings of their contemporaries, as well as employing sounds and styles of their influences' reference points.
What anchors the record, and keeps it from being an exercise in derivativeness, is the top-notch songwriting at work - Castillejos in particular, brings a unique world-view that's equal parts weary, sociopolitical, and childlike: he can reference something as simple as the joy of observing falling leaves in a forest, then join it with a lyric about romantic disillusionment or thinly-veiled social protest, his voice conveying a warmth and immediacy which gives the lyrics heft. Hoyt, a talented guitarist in his own right, can shift from gentle acoustic strumming to hard-miked, blazing electrified solos at the drop of a hat.
Surprisingly, there is not a weak tune on this twelve-track song cycle - obviously, getting back together after such a hiatus only served to reinvigorate their passion for making music, and not a single note feels forced, calculated, or mercenary. This is the sound of two guys getting together, writing songs and recording them, not caring about commercial viability or selling out arenas. In a age of fledgling groups adhering to the "Wanted: Bands in the vein of...." philosophy that keeps corporations like TAXI and Sonicbids in business, it's refreshing to hear a group that wants to deliver its message, never losing sight of the fact their main motivation is self-expression, not fortune. Here's hoping Mountain Sounds gets both. Grade: A-