Random Access Memories – song-by-song review

Random_Access_Memories I first listened to RAM when it leaked on iTunes and Grooveshark last week; back then I could not focus enough to appreciate it. I had found it mostly jarring, except “Giorgio” which was already leaping forth from the headphones like a hurricane of drums.

I waited for Spotify version to give it a full, focused listen to, and the next thing I knew I bought the entire album (in MP3 – I don’t do digital anymore; that’s because I actually buy new records maybe once every two years)

One thing I have to say before going deeper into this. Like Brent diCrescenzo from Time Out Chicago (an obscure place to find a review you agree with, I know) I like to believe that I get the album, because I share similar musical experiences with these guys, albeit I got into the late 70s music a few years later than is socially acceptable. I get what Daft Punk wanted to do here, and I like it, and I agree with it.

I’m not a great Punkhead or Daftkid, or whatever fans of the group like to call themselves. Of previous albums I only really liked Discovery, and not even all of it. But I could always hear their music pedigree was impeccable, and their robotic hearts were in the right place. That a record like Random Access Memories was going to happen was pretty much inevitable, if you listened closely.

Reading reviews so far, one thing is striking: almost every reviewer has a few songs they like, and a few songs they hate, and they are never the same songs. Some might say this proves RAM is an inconsistent record, but to me it’s consistent in its grand idea. The memories may be random, but they are from a very specific place in time and space. The album plays like a radio station set to a 1976 Top Hit station; and the only way to enjoy it whole is to take all of the late 70s in stride, with no qualms or exceptions.

Of course, none of that would matter if the music was mediocre; but it’s anything but. The Steely Dan approach works, if you get the right people in; the Tarantino-esque collage of motifs and themes works, if you get the right sounds in. And Daft Punk does both these things perfectly. The melodies are catchy and instantly-hummable, and the rhythms are addictive. If they are robotic in their precision (as if that was a bad thing), then so where James Brown or Donald Fagen.

1. Give Life Back to Music 4/6

In “Rubber Ring”, Morrissey sings “Don’t forget the songs that made you cry, and the songs that saved your life”. There is a similar sentiment here, I feel: don’t forget the music of the Golden Era of LP, which gave life to everything we know of as popular music now. This is a manifesto of the album: to honour that age and reinstate it in its proper place.

It plays just like an overture should, mixing and matching everything you’ll hear next: disco rhythms, funky bass, and stadion rock anthem-like guitar crescendo. By the time it ends, you should be prepared for the ride ahead of you.

2. The Game of Love 3/6

This one is a nice ballad, but a bit maudlin in its lounge-like smooth-jazz whine. What saves it are the exquisite keyboard solos by Chris Caswell – and the quality of the main melody, which like all good melodies is deceptively simple at first, until you start humming it.

3. Giorgio by Moroder 6/6

“There was no preconception of what to do.”

Where do I start? Not only the best song of the album, but possibly the best song of the decade. At first listen I was struck by most obvious qualities: the drum fillers, the Trans-Europe Express rhythm, the insane final battle between synths, guitar and drums. But there’s so much else going on, I keep discovering new sounds and mysteries. It’s so complex that describing it feels like posting spoilers. There will be disertations written on how they got that scratch-drum sound to work with the gated reverb so flawlessly. A true test of the quality of your speakers or headphones: can you hear everything that’s going on?

4. Within 6/6

Chilly Gonzales will no doubt experience a great rush in popularity, as people all over the world will keep asking “who’s playing that piano?”

This song has perhaps the best melody on the record, and the vocoder sounds as if somebody melted Chet Baker with his own trumpet. In arrangement, it is almost understated: there’s only enough extraneous sound there to bind everything together.

5. Instant Crush 5/6

Could you tell it’s Casablancas singing if you weren’t told? I’d say it’s one of his best vocal performances in career, even if mangled out of all recognition. This song single-handedly redeems auto-tune of all its many crimes.

Instant Crush thrives on its chorus, and is perhaps the most Discovery-like of this set. Indeed, with slightly different vocals it wouldn’t feel out of place on that record at all.

6. Lose Yourself to Dance 4/6

I didn’t like this one at first; I thought it’s just a repeatable, forgettable piece, like the lesser tracks from Discovery. But that was ignoring the whole idea of the song: it is a sound collage, in the strictest artistic sense of the word; they took the catch-phrases of the disco era: “come on”, “get on the floor” and “get ready” and made good music just from these three bits.

It still doesn’t quite work for me as a track in its own right, but the concept is admirable.

7. Touch 5/6

Apart from the fact he wrote “Rainbow Connection” I knew nothing about Paul Williams before discovering this song; now I know all there is to know, including having watched bits of the Phantom of Paradise, which according to the Daft Punk mythology had set the duo on course to world domination.

The beginning may be the third or fourth best moment on the record; to me it sounds like a Doctor Who villain reading a poem. There is an obvious 70s sci-fi vibe about the song, that gets later picked up in a more dramatic form in Contact: if Daft Punk ever made another space opera score, these two songs would have to be on it.

The jazz band/dixieland instrumental in the middle is just pure bliss, even though it’s incongruously sandwiched between two segments of straight-faced space rock. It forces you to wonder, just what exactly is the story being told here?

8. Get Lucky 3/6

By the time the album went out, everybody heard Get Lucky, and made their opinion. No point in reviewing this one, then; I’ll just add that, as great a single as it may make, it’s far from my favourite tracks on the album. It’s still a good song, even after all the overexposure, but apart from Doin’ it Right it’s one that I’m most likely to skip.

Also, in my head it will forever be sung by a three-headed Peter Serafinowicz.

9. Beyond 4/6

You can’t get a 70s homage without a grand cinematic orchestral sweep, of course. What follows is a song that I can only describe as “very decent”. I like it enough when it comes up on the playlist, but it’s not a song I actively seek out to listen. The reason may be that it’s invoking a vibe I missed out on in my musical education – or it’s simply not matching any of my moods.

10. Motherboard 4/6

Contrary to what some have said about the track, this is no throwaway tune. Motherboard is a thoroughly enjoyable instrumental that always gets me tapping my fingers to the synth flute line; the drumwork leaves nothing to complain about, and the spacey synths complete the Blade Runner-esque imagery. This is Tangerine Dream and Vangelis for the modern era; this is what the Replicants listen to in the chill-out zone.

11. Fragments of Time 6/6

Well, this one is obvious, isn’t it? Daft Punk take their Steely Dan inspiration to its literal  conclusion. It wouldn’t feel at all out of place beside Babylon Sisters or Charlemagne Kid. They play it so straight, and are so pious in their devotion to the original, that Todd Edwards isn’t even subjected to the usual vocoder treatment.

And since there is never enough Steely Dan or Steely Dan-derivatives in the world, this one deserves full marks.

12. Doin’ it Right 2/6

I think my opinion of this song proves how far removed I am from the usual Daft Punk listener. I can only guess Doin’ it Right is what die hard fans expected the whole album to be like; it’s by far the popular favourite in the comments sections of music magazines. Personally, I find it the most meh of the lot, almost to the point of skipping it when I listen through the entire record. If I leave it on it’s out of respect for the general concept: if Daft Punk deemed it right for the song to be there, that means it should be there.

13. Contact 5/6

Almost as good as Giorgio, this space-prog song sounds almost like a “lost track” off of Discovery, only better than any of those due to Omar Hakim’s live drums. I’m a sucker for drums, if you couldn’t tell by now, and when they are so prominent on the mix as here, the song immediately gets my attention. If it doesn’t get the full marks of Giorgio it’s only because it’s too straightforward: there are no surprises here from start to finish, no depth, just plain good old rocking out. This is the 70s rock moments before punk: the end of a golden era, cut off at just the right moment, before we stopped caring about melody and craftsmanship.

So there you have it. Random Access Memories is the Aja of our generation: for good or for bad, this is as good as the music of 2010s gets.

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