Thursday, May 29, 2014
Daft Punk's 1997 debut Homework exhausted many listeners, including this one, but its impact -- especially given its relatively late entry into the dance music platform that had been in place by then for over two decades -- was beyond measure. It also exhausted house music, at least from the perspective of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo -- they did everything they could think of. Discovery entered the world eagerly at a time of considerable before-the-storm hedonism, a shot of unapologetic joy that's pointedly unopposed to being stupid. It doesn't feature songs any more than its predecessor so much as just bare, unadorned hooks distilled to their illogically orgasmic essence. It's all cream filling, and thus just as grating as the prior record, just as artistically intriguing, and depending on the moment, just as inspiring of bump-and-grind dancefloor pyrotechnics.
The first two Daft Punk records were both received lukewarmly upon release, but they each gradually grew into significant albums, slowly finding their audiences until they had a decade's worth of moments. That's despite each of them having sizable hits, in this case "One More Time," a curious single indeed. The track marks an immediate reversal from the stark relentlessness of Homework; not merely less beat driven but spending much of its time in a pregnant pause absent of percussion, it consists of what sounds like a distantly sampled introductory splash from a long-forgotten disco record, followed by just a fragment of its chorus. It's the essence of something, deliberately robbed of whatever meaning it may have had, as alien in its fashion as an early Beatles record just making its way Stateside -- but rather than presenting an unsettling, unexpected, unforced pleasure, its sensations seem implanted, almost grotesquely. In an era when pop music was so frequently accused of being overly engineered, Daft Punk went further; "One More Time" is notebook pop, a radio single concocted by HAL 9000.
Its relentless cheeriness does betray a surprisingly broken-feeling nostalgia, something that folks stuck working in the lobby at AMC where it played on a loop for a whole summer or trying to concentrate on their game of checkers at the Tipsy Teapot likely ignored or couldn't even sense. But it nags at you; the autotuned robovoice is as capable as HAL of saying things it doesn't mean: "music's got me feelin' so free," indeed. By and large, Daft Punk's longing to capture a midnight-summertime flood of unjudged bliss translates to something that, considering it's mostly nonverbal, is surprisingly on-the-nose. The entire first half of Discovery is, in a word, annoying.
It's not that the record lacks ideas or is overly bare at any point, an accusation that the simpler, more evenly breathing Random Access Memories would one day face. Like Homework, it comes flooding out with evidence of the personality and fixations of the band, from the "Mother" intro and fussy classical hook of "Aerodynamic" to the obvious Stevie Wonder lift on "Night Vision." Like a lot of cut-and-paste musicians and producers, Daft Punk see the virtue in everything they process and seem to be influenced by everything in all corners of pop culture, which can make them seem alternately offbeat or individualistic and, far more often, an unfiltered mess of junk. There's no mistaking that Discovery is a wavering record, less confident than Homework, which leads in part to its kitchen sink tragedy -- but it loves its kitsch, and as much as it glares backward toward disco liberation, the experience of listening to it resembles some perverse marriage of "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" to the 1910 Fruitgum Co. more than the actual music of Chic, Gloria Gaynor or K.C. & the Sunshine Band (much less their descendants).
These canned Casio hooks, sporadic beats, fun times at grownup Chuck E. Cheese and extended commercials for the ABC Saturday Night Movie have their contrived charm; "Digital Love" is exactly the song its title suggests, and "Harder Better Faster Stronger" is a tricky enough act of goose-stepping manipulation, locating soul in its eerie fascism, that it's little wonder it was destined to become more famous than itself. (Given how much Daft Punk are attached to friendly flourish, it's even more ironic to hear this side by side with Kanye West's masterpiece Yeezus, on which they aided West in upgrading blues braggadio to late last night with uncomfortable, unadorned charisma and menace against blown-out void.) At worst, though, this is either irritating exercise music ("Superheroes") that yearns to be turned off or Sega Genesis scoring ("Crescendolls") than yearns to be turned off or repurposed as the cheap soundtrack to your camcorder-shot vacation tape.
Like so many dance or electronica records, Discovery comes around at last past generic tangents like "High Life" and prog silliness like "Veridis Quo" when it drops the winking self-awareness, the AREN'T WE HAVING A GREAT TIME EVERYBODY??? vibe of fun crammed down one's throat. A record this haphazardly sequenced makes little to no effort to set a mood; it crashes down on the table in the middle of the party then gradually burns out. What's odd is, that's the good part. The turning point is the slow groove "Something About Us," a genuinely crafty ballad in the vein of Sade. This is followed by actual R&B on the tremendous "Face to Face," without question the group's best song up to this point. They're aided here by house producer and vocalist Todd Edwards whose tasteful but exuberant efforts take the cut past its lopped-off "Billie Jean" intro into an emotional realm heretofore unexplored by Daft Punk's often hollow-by-instinct club music.
That's just one facet of the record's refreshingly melancholy back half. "Face to Face" would become a major hit in U.S. clubs, and it's one of three cuts here that suggest how much potential Daft Punk really had. While the doo wop flameout "Too Long" actually justfies (title notwithstanding) its sprawling ten-minute length with a hard beat and arm-waving climax, "Short Circuit" toys much more conservatively with a simple Bernie Worrell / Tom Tom Club meltdown that transforms rapidly from vice to drone in an organic yet completely unexpected manner -- it feels like a piece of music that resolves the conflicts of Daft Punk's divergent pop sensibilitues: their obligation to innovate versus their obligation toward dancing versus their love of great, listenable pop recordings. All Daft Punk's records toy with the weirdness and unceasing revision of identity -- at its best, Discovery is about realizing just how limitless the concept can be.
Random Access Memories (2013)
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Bradford Cox is a sadsack, but sometimes we need that. For years I've thought of Halcyon Digest, an album by Deerhunter that I love with all my heart, as something of a fluke. It's almost as confusing to keep up with Cox's various projects and personas as it is with John Darnielle and Stephin Merritt, even if Cox is a bit more of a natural collaborator, so I placed the Atlas Sound record Logos and this infamously leaked New York pseudo-shoegaze album on a sort of continuum. They've always blended together to me, and generally despite putting it on a number of times over the past several years with varying degrees of concentration, it's only in the last few weeks that Microcastle has started to move me. Is it a question of attention span? Mood? The context of Deerhunter eventually putting out an album I actively disliked (Monomania)? Whatever the case, I hear wisps of both the intricate moodiness of Halcyon and the galvanizing beauty of Atlas Sound's Parallax in this, like steps along an evolutionary path. Cox's music always rewards repeated attention, but it's hard to heartily recommend a record so elusive that it literally took me half a decade to appreciate it. All the same, here we are.
Microcastle may or may not be a drug album -- it certainly rewards the same sort of zone-out trance as zoomhead classics like Oar, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Sister Lovers and any number of early Brian Eno touchstones. Shambolic, beautiful, slapdash, it aspires to the buzzing and metallic sheen of old Ride, Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine records -- but Cox is too outsized a personality to make that a convincing analogy. Even in his subtlest, softest gestures he is a figure of full-on melodrama, gesturing theatrically. So Microcastle starts like you'd expect it to end: a hungover encore, a party gone too long.
And then the cooing starts but not from Cox, some combination of come for me comfort me cover me, sweet and broken. Lockett Pundt might evoke Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel on "Agoraphobia" but the band has other ideas. It's a tired comparison any band attracted to the sound of jangle has struggled with, much as the prior generation incessantly dodged Byrds analogies, but R.E.M. is inescapable here. It's a good aspiration for Deerhunter to try and craft an album that subsumes the listener completely, that reveals secrets gradually the way their famed fellow Georgians once did. Like Murmur or New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Microcastle turns out not only to craftily hide its hooks, melodic peaks and cathartic moments, it teases just enough to encourage continued exposure.
It's hard to define why it's therefore less rewarding than the band's next record, except maybe just that the songs aren't as strong or thematically potent. Each individual song, major and minor, is a microcosm of the whole album: pretty and vague, with a hard, dreamlike edge. What it seldom is, with scattered exceptions like the subtly graceful stop-start rhythmic "Little Kids," is playful. At moments you could drown yourself in the desolation of it all, in a manner not dissimilar to the Antlers' oppressive Hospice from a few months down the line. But then, again, there are the secrets: like Big Star's "Daisy Glaze," the title track begins as a barely-there dirge full of late-night angst and a yearning whine from beyond, then suddenly hops into action.
This, too, is a micro-replica of what the album itself does; its midsection is wholly occupied by a beautiful but minimalistic suite of songs that sound like discordant lost demos, troubling in their rambling despair; by the under-two-minutes "Activa," with its eerie swirl of kalimba and tortured vocals, it seems to be lulling us to sleep. Then: at long last rock. The deservedly famous "Nothing Ever Happened," written by the band's rhythm section, is the emotional peak here; its feeling of triumph feels almost quaint against the emotional claustrophobia elsewhere, yet it makes sense. The band would position it in the future as their signature anthem, their "You Made Me Realise," and it's easy to understand why.
"Nothing Ever Happened" also recasts everything that comes afterward; it's here that Deerhunter first hint at the eclecticism that would make Digest such a pleasure. Cox's "Saved by Old Times" and "Twilight at Carbon Lake" bring back Stax memories, with funked-out stutter on the former, last-dance-at-prom romance on the latter. And Pundt's other contribution "Neither of Us, Uncertainly" sounds like someone's arm's-length idea of what this project was initially intended to do: it's a worthy and convincing shoegaze imitation, with even a bit of Pixies. Even if it has none of the sophistication of Cox's songs or even Pundt's own other contributions, it dares to be fun. Hence Microcastle now feels in retrospect like a split of the difference between the best work of Deerhunter, Atlas Sound and Pundt's side project Lotus Plaza. It's satisfying, detailed, intriguing, but it's an unfinished story -- for better and for worse, depending on your headspace right now.
Halcyon Digest (2010)
Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Almost no band looms larger in the Triangle rock scene (and the general Chapel Hill, NC mythos) than Archers of Loaf, who reigned througout the '90s despite endless record company problems as a sort of southern answer to Pavement much as Antietam were the South's Yo La Tengo. Produced like Mitch Easter mush with a metallic grind, catchy and grandiose if you listen closely enough, and strongly reflective of a time when the fabled grit of L7 and Pixies were inescapable, the classic debut album Icky Mettle doesn't make the comparisons hard to understand. Leader Eric Bachmann projects more rock-star confidence than Stephen Malkmus, albeit with a slight croak in his voice (and is a bit less self-aware), but he has the same snarl, verbosity and buried sweetness. The Archers come on with subtlety as a recording unit -- you have to crank the record up high to get a sense of the anger and passion of their stage performances -- but even with such practiced coolness and detachment, it's obvious at even a glance that there's something mildly contrived about this raucousness.
The dual guitar attack of Bachmann and Eric Johnson is the best element of the unit at this point, somewhat glossing over the fairly standard songwriting by boasting better technical strength than most cult bands of the post-grunge years. Some of the solos have a beauty and bright edge to them suggestive of Television (especially Richard Lloyd's contributions) and the Flamin' Groovies. That latter point seems pertinent on the initial single "Wrong," a hook-filled time capsule of 1992 modern rock radio that could be power pop if it were a little hotter on the treble. At 3:41, it's an appreciably crafty construction with the brash rock quiet-loud move during a broken-down bridge straight off a Who or Boston record. The whole song seems like an endless chorus, approached with gusto. Bachmann's lyrical psychodrama gives it an edge and tension but really the object is straight-ahead obnoxious rock & roll. When the power chords casually slip in on other songs, like "Web in Front," it's an almost naked expression of attitude in the classical sense -- the band might never have aspired to major-label stardom but the radio was always on their minds.
"Web in Front" is also the prime reason Icky Mettle got everyone talking about Pavement, already somewhat legendary at the time despite having released just one full-length record; the slapdash ferocity, ringing guitar and the chanted "ALL I EVER WANTED" over a cloud of sludge and snarl are all red herrings to offset the song's sheer earnestly uncool strength and grandness. "Last Word," the cut that sits between these two small landmarks, even has a conventional big metal chorus; the screaming is dull, but the constant chatter keeps things unusual.
Mettle is deliberately produced with a flat enough sound that even the big transformative climaxes here and there take a while to catch on with you. The intimate bass-only quiet of the first minute of "You and Me" helps communicate its drama; not just lyrically (note the "Angie"-like accusation / lament "I been so down lately, you been so low lately, nothing seems to work out for you and me"), it's sophisticated enough to suggest a complete story we can't fully detect. Then the mandolin exotica of "Hate Paste," a wild outlier with the usual business slathered all over it -- versatility fused with apathy, a punk ethic drawn back to the Replacements and earlier.
When we talk about the angst being contrived, we mean "Fat," which feels readymade for the Butch Vig remix with its big bitter "WHAT DO YOU FUCKINNN," and "Plump Line," the verbose and reflective boorishness of which throws in a witty rejoinder like "you got a collection of things cause that's the best you can do" but jinxes it with the oddly smug sketch of an indie rocker, rhymed with "nothing's gonna stop her." We mean the fuzzed-out drama "Learo, You're a Hole" which sounds like a commercial summarizing the concept of "alternative" rock as of this moment. It's surprising it wasn't all over the radio in 1994 until you get to the chorus, which nevertheless seems a pure put-on Frank Black lift. Even when Bachmann is unhinged, it's a programmatic unhinged. Emotion is audible beneath the booming riffage on "Slow Worm." But where else?
These were adults, and the Archers have a following of seasoned popular guitar music lovers -- and yet the music somehow or another feels excessively familiar, excessively worked over. How much of this is merely a result of its being a product of an offbeat, unexpected attitude change that would even more unexpectedly overtake the industry for a time over the next few years? Icky Mettle is an impressively clever record, but it's awfully slight. The Archers are too afraid to imitate Dean Wareham so instead they lightly parody him (on "Toast"). Politics interest them but only enough for the barbed bon mots of "Wrong." And they dig towering riffs and switched-on pop, as who doesn't, but they're determined to bury it. This record is invaluable as a way to escape into those times and a moment when this could all seem new again. But it's also a distant, unfeeling record determined to offset much of its own appeal. The result is it's interesting, but it's hard to feel anything for it. I'm just being honest, it's the least I could do.