Daft Punk’s New Record (And Also About Records Generally)

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Sam Wilkinson

According to a faithful reader, I'm Ordinary Times's "least thoughtful writer." So I've got that going for me, which is nice.

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40 Responses

  1. Avatar Aaron W says:

    Did we listen to the same album? I really enjoyed the new Daft Punk album, actually. Maybe I should listen to it more than once, though.

    I know what you mean about albums, though. I used to be really risk adverse about buying an album even if I liked one song. iTunes definitely helped with that since you can preview tracks more easily. But now that I’m using a music subscription service like Rdio (similar to Spotify and the like), I’m much more willing to just listen to an album since I’m already paying monthly for it anyway. I’ve discovered a lot of great music I wouldn’t have otherwise that way, since I’m much more willing to just listen to something random. It does seem like somewhat of an anachronism from an era where physical music media were the only way to listen to music. Perhaps that will change once those are completely obsolete.Report

  2. Avatar Glyph says:

    Sorry to hear this is a disappointment Sam, I know you were looking forward to it. Spend some more time with it, your opinion may change (this is one reason I haven’t reviewed much current music at MD – my opinions often fluctuate quite a bit until I have spent time with a record under varying conditions, so by the time I know what I think, the world has long since moved on).

    1.) Moroder is the man. (As is Nile Rodgers).

    2.) FYC can be forgiven if you consider them a novelty side project of The Beat, who ruled.

    3.) I don’t know why this is, but dance music has always had the single vs. album problem. (I’ve mentioned before that I generally consider hip-hop a subset of dance music, and I know you are a big fan of that too). It’s always seemed to me that even many of the greatest dance artists often have trouble generating enough consistently good material to sustain an entire album, let alone a career, and one-hit wonders abound (of course rock music has no shortage of these either, but it’s always seemed more common in dance).

    Theories:

    a. Dance music is so focused on production – getting the perfect “sound” just right – that the “songwriting” sometimes gets short shrift?

    b. Possibly-related – dance music’s relative emphasis of “rhythm” over “melody” maybe constrains the number of interesting variations a given writer can come up with? After all, to remain danceable, the rhythm can’t go too fast or too slow or too complicated, and must contain a lot of repetition to remain predictable for the dancers, so there are already fairly heavy constraints there; and de-emphasizing melody adds further constraints. Obviously your geniuses are going to do well anyway, maybe even creatively flourish due to the additional constraints, but as a genre it’s maybe not as forgiving to the near-genius or average writer?Report

    • Avatar Will H. in reply to Glyph says:

      I think dance music is more faddish anyway.
      Who listens to the Mararena these days?

      Also, AOR had quite an effect in cultivating sloppy arrangements.
      Lots of prog is really bad about that; Wishbone Ash, Yes (probably the prime example there), etc. A lot of the meandering King Crimson stuff I can’t get into.
      Rush was different in that regard. Their arrangements were typically very tight.

      Songwriting style has a lot to do with it as well.
      If it’s built around improvisation or tested in front of audiences, that stuff tends to wear better, I’m thinking.
      I’m sure I could find exceptions. Then again, maybe that is totally irrelevant.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Will H. says:

        Will H. – But there’s novelty tunes in rock too. Is “The Macarena” worse than “Surfin’ Bird”?

        (Yes, it is, because “Surfin’ Bird” rules!)

        Anyway, I’d think that a symptom, not a cause. In the mid-90’s when I was listening to a lot of electronic music, the joke was always the dizzying rate of constant new genre and subgenre names as each thing would splinter, subdivide, and splinter again, in constant restless search of novelty. Change the tempo? New subgenre. Use different types of samples or equipment? New subgenre.

        Per my theory, even at the time, I thought that a lot of it was necessary because without (often) traditional melodies or (often) human vocals, it is very hard to distinguish oneself AND keep making something interesting…when you are intentionally limiting yourself to 10 blocks, you can only stack those 10 blocks so many ways, before you need different blocks.

        I dunno, I think New Order is one of the greatest dance bands the world’s ever seen, and they couldn’t make a consistently-great album to save their lives. Uneven as all get out. Dance just seems like it always has been a predominantly singles medium (actually, now that I think of it, the prominence of the DJ in dance culture also probably has something to do with it…why bother making a whole amazing album, when the DJ god is just going to blend your best 12″ cut into something else anyway? Just focus on the next 12″.)Report

        • Avatar krogerfoot in reply to Glyph says:

          Live recordings of New Order shed a lot of light on why their output is so uneven. Listening to a bootleg gave me new respect for the effort that must go into making a New Order record, with all the time and engineering skill needing to be allocated to getting the vocals in tune.Report

        • Avatar dhex in reply to Glyph says:

          overal i’d probably argue with the album as scam bit but the general idea that more people should concentrate on making solid ep’s is, well, solid. despite living in a fiber optic cassingle world, we’re not quite past the album just yet. and i say thankfully, because i hear lots of good albums all the time.

          cassingle is one of the greatest neologisms of all time.

          i am not a daft punk fan so i have no real opinion on that side. i do have an opinion of new order but will keep it to myself. 🙂

          anyway, to augment rather than quibble with glyph’s megamix, i think i would slightly amend the music without words bits to something like “a form based in temporality and performance/playback, and thus difficult to recall from a rockist cultural pov” which is quite frankly a rewriting of his letter if not his spirit. in terms of use the closest analogues are religious service music and improvisational music (in the john zorn downtown scene sense) – all are rooted and fixated on live performance and, more importantly, on creating a live setting.

          and yes i just seriously used rockist in a sentence.

          the concept didn’t really click for me until i saw speedy j many a year ago do a live pa/dj/whatever thing at a (mostly) gay club event in nyc. many years ago dear lord. it was a sweaty throb of male energy that coil would have been proud of. there was an element of back and forth, tailoring the performance to the needs of the crowd and vice versa. it was techno-ish, but it was also noise. like surgeon, he hovers between derrick may and throbbing gristle.

          obligatory simon reynolds book recommendation: energy flash

          obligatory recommendations:

          this mix: http://mnmlssg.blogspot.com/2012/05/ssgs-re-presents-carsten-jost-and.html

          andy stott (luxury problems in particular)
          speedy j
          plastikman
          surgeon
          robert hood
          the black dog
          safety scissors
          kit clayton
          xhin
          swayzak
          stewart walker
          gas
          porter ricks
          sutekhReport

          • Avatar Glyph in reply to dhex says:

            dhex – not entirely sure I am following you. This:

            “difficult to recall from a rockist cultural pov”

            A.) I didn’t think I was being particularly “rockist” – I assert no superiority of one form over the other. I LIKE dance & electronic music (though I don’t care too much for Daft Punk) and believe that it can do things that rock usually can’t, as it is structured more “horizontally” than “vertically”.

            B.) By “recall” are you referring to the “memorableness” of a piece of music?

            And this:

            in terms of use the closest analogues are religious service music and improvisational music (in the john zorn downtown scene sense) – all are rooted and fixated on live performance and, more importantly, on creating a live setting.

            and

            there was an element of back and forth, tailoring the performance to the needs of the crowd and vice versa.

            Are you saying that rock bands DON’T do these things? I hope not, because they do; this is the essence of live performance, and seducing an audience (which can involve any amount of “come-hither” alternating with intentional distancing, as the situation requires). Granted that some are better than others at it, but I don’t think the idea or techniques are unique to dance music.

            Gotta run, will check in later.Report

            • Avatar Glyph in reply to Glyph says:

              Also, of your list of artists, let me take the ones I am familiar with:

              plastikman
              robert hood
              the black dog
              gas
              porter ricks

              All great, and all technically fall under “dance music” by dint of custom, derivation, and instrumentation/production technique; but in realistic, practical terms, pretty much only Hood and TBD actually made music you can mostly ACTUALLY dance to.

              Which is to say that even when Plastikman (The only Hawtin project I am really familiar with musically, I know there are others) or Gas are working in tempos at which a booty can conceivably shake, they are (to me) usually doing something far more cerebral and contemplative than something mostly intended to get bodies moving on dance floors (forget trying to dance to, say, Consumed).

              The “utilitarian” needs of “make sure people can dance to this” seems to be a countervailing force to “make infinite interesting variations on this” that could potentially stymie a given creator – either he gets stuck doing one thing and he and his listeners become uninspired and bored, or he moves too far afield and his listeners become confused; either way, creator and/or listener must move on to the next thing.

              When I was noting the historical tendency of “dance” music to often do better at the single than the album, think “club” or “party” music if that is a better term. Even before they started to move to more live instrumentation, Daft Punk always seemed far closer to Chic than to Autechre, and the demands of an *actual* dancefloor with dancing clubgoers (not “braindancing”:-) might impose different strictures, was what I was trying to get at.

              Even jungle/drum ‘n’ bass (to date myself – it’s partially where dubstep came from, kiddies!) was somewhat danceable despite the fast tempos and fractured lines, and very few actual full and re-listenable/playable albums came out of it.

              Or look at the way The Chemical Brothers figured out a way to successfully make a full album, then made basically that EXACT SAME album several times, even placing similar songs in similar track positions on each record, almost like they were structuring each album as one long track, with its peaks and valleys at dependable, predictable intervals – like they found a DJ set or mix that reliably worked, and set about re-creating that.Report

              • Avatar Dhex in reply to Glyph says:

                Running to c21 to buy shoes (maybe) but just wanted to say I meant rockist poverty with regards to American culture not you specifically.

                Also you are crazy wrong about plastic man. 🙂Report

              • Avatar Glyph in reply to Dhex says:

                RE: Plastikman – I know there are some faster more club-friendly tracks, but he is generally far more introverted than extroverted – think “Psyk” or “Pakard” or “Marbles” or “Konception” (or all of Consumed) – even when the tempos get faster, at most it’s head-nodding music. Hands are still in your pockets, like you just DO care.

                This is not a dis, Plastikman is one of my favorites – but to me there’s a darkness and a “reserve” to most of his music that makes *you* do some of the work to come to it. You don’t put on Plastikman to get a party started.

                Well, not the kind of party most people are interested in starting, anyway. I’m not going to say that it didn’t get played at some parties I went to back in the day.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Glyph says:

                I don’t mind Plastikman, but I have to say, anyone who’s in a club dancing to Plastikman is in the wrong friggin’ club.

                My girlfriend is a (thankfully) former NYC clubgirl. For this reason (maybe out of nostalgia?), she listens mostly to house music and New York dj mix tapes. Sometimes when I’m at her place I need headphones. More DJ Blazita? No, thank you.Report

              • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

                A club in my town used to do a night where they would play the more experimental end of techno/IDM/whatev, and they went ahead and put couches and stuff around the dance floor, so you could sit with your drink and chill and listen. It was cool.

                It was not a commercial success and did not last long.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

                I’ve been to clubs like that, except I think of them as lounges not clubs. There are a couple here, actually. I don’t mind them, but if I want to go somewhere and dance, I’m going to go somewhere that’s playing loud mixes with a shitload of bass and changes in all the right places, because that’s how dancing works.Report

              • Avatar dhex in reply to Chris says:

                so outside of the first half of his recording career under that moniker and that whole insane tour thing he did a few years back it’s not dance music whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa a a a a a a boom tisk boom tisk boom tisk boom tisk

                sorry got distracted. anyway y’all are sparta. much love, but sparta.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

                I don’t know what it means to be Sparta, but I kinda dig their art, so I suppose it’s OK.

                Also, suffer what I suffer.Report

              • Avatar dhex in reply to Chris says:

                sorry sparta = madness.

                wow…that is…blazita is really lousy. not even trying. and i say this as a white guy who likes reggaeton and even some moombahton.

                somewhat related maybe NEW BOARDS OF CANADA:
                http://youtu.be/2jTg-q6Drt0

                i’ve listened to nothing but for the last 24 hours.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

                The thing is, DJ Blazita isn’t someone you’re supposed to listen to. You go to a club, you hear nothing but the bass, and you dance. Some people I know haven’t understood the first part of that, though.Report

    • Avatar Sam in reply to Glyph says:

      I think you’re missing a bigger issue, which is that dance music gets played in clubs, and clubs aren’t likely to push entire albums. The goal is making a few tracks that get massive play. I remember once seeing a documentary about Jamaica’s club music scene in which getting a single song to pop was the goal; artists had one weekend to make it happen. If they couldn’t, their records were melted back down and used to press something else that might be more commercially viable.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Sam says:

        Yeah, I think I kind of eventually stumbled sideways around to that idea too:

        (actually, now that I think of it, the prominence of the DJ in dance culture also probably has something to do with it…why bother making a whole amazing album, when the DJ god is just going to blend your best 12? cut into something else anyway? Just focus on the next 12?.)Report

        • Avatar Sam in reply to Glyph says:

          I don’t think it’s necessarily though that the artist is saying, “Fuck the next 11, I got the good one done!” I think it’s the music industry saying, “Make the next 11, you’ve already got the good one.” Maybe it’s a chicken-egg fight.

          That said, I somehow missed that part of it; my apologies.Report

  3. Avatar krogerfoot says:

    I’m feeding the cats, getting ready for work, and listening to RAM for about the sixteenth time. I may yet sour on the record, but I love it now. I will be back in a while to, I hope, convince you that you’re incorrect about Random Access Memories. Courage!Report

  4. Avatar krogerfoot says:

    Quick point – you’re not incorrect with your album-as-marketing-scam thesis. I’d argue (another time) that the album format has done far more good than harm to pop music. W/r/t RAM, it doesn’t apply, because “Get Lucky,” though wonderful, isn’t the best song on the record.Report

  5. Avatar krogerfoot says:

    Okay, I’m not sure I can talk anyone in to loving RAM. I have a lot more sympathy for anyone who feels disappointed in the new Daft Punk record, and less disdain for the single:album::bait:switch argument. “Get Lucky” makes certain promises that seem not to be honored if you spring for the whole album, and certainly doesn’t indicate that one should expect a 9-minute Giorgio Moroder documentary three songs in.

    Random Access Memories is a confounding record, and I may look back in shame to have defended it, but it seems to me that the crazy choices Daft Punk has made on the record will withstand scrutiny. I’m thinking of the way Ulysses famously drops perverse, long stretches of deliberately terrible writing in our path just as we think we’re getting a grip on that goddamned novel. I’m pretty sure Daft Punk is not mocking the disco artifacts they’re presenting, but they must know it’s not going to go down easy.

    I don’t know – why would they sandwich “Touch,” the orchestral Paul Williams number, between “Get Lucky” and the even more irresistible “Lose Yourself to Dance”? Everything about “Touch” is shrieking for you to flee and offer thanks for surviving the 1970s, but five minutes in it takes a turn for the beautiful. Maybe it’s a teachable moment. It seems to be working on me, because I’m starting to really like the whole of the song, made up as it is of parts that I should hate.

    “Fragments of Time” is really terrible, but I’m not sure it’s worse than the song with Julian Casablancas. If you give up on RAM during “Fragments of Time,” you miss out on “Doin’ it Right.” Whatever this record is, it’s what an album should be, I think, more like a novel than a package of nice songs. The difficult, even boring (bad?) stretches work together with the exciting bits to create a particular experience. I don’t know if RAM is great, but it reminds me of a secondhand idea I got somewhere (ah, here) about really great new stuff: It often repels us at first.Report

  6. Avatar Reformed Republican says:

    Am I some sort of outlier? Because I love albums. I mostly listen to CDs, because I prefer listening to entire albums instead of scattered tracks. Maybe it is a genre thing, because I do not listen to much dance or hip hop. The best albums are those that function as a whole, where the songs are ordered so they flow from one to another, with a mind for dynamics and mood. However, even among the albums that are not cohesive, there are none I listen to regularly that I would prefer to only have a couple of songs instead of the entirety.Report

    • My guess is that this can be entirely experiential feedback among individuals. I had so many bad experiences with records that I thought were going to be better, based upon one song that ended being the record’s peak, that I completely soured on the experience. Fifteen bucks was a lot of money to me back then; hoodwinking me didn’t end up making me loyal to the industry.

      But if I’d mostly run into things that I liked? That might have made me different.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Sam says:

        I have no way to prove my hypothesis, but I know my college roommate who was a real hip-hop head always had the same complaint as Sam. One or two good tracks plus a bunch of filler, seemed to be the norm. Finding an artist who could make an entire solid album, or several, seemed to be very much the exception, rather than rule.

        Of course, hip-hop (which has some roots in the Jamaican scene Sam alludes to above) has always had a pretty openly capitalistic bent – not that rock doesn’t have this too, but since the 60’s there’s this idea (pretense?) in rock that “it’s for the ART, man! Don’t be a SELLOUT!” that hip-hop has seemingly only rarely bothered with.

        I think “get a product to market and strike while the iron is hot – make the cover art on your friend’s computer, print ’em up at Kinko’s, and sell those tapes out of your trunk!” probably lends itself a bit to what appears to be mercenary scamming/bait and switch, with one or two amazing tracks, and a bunch of rushed-to-tape stuff to fill out the remaining time.Report

  7. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    I seldom listen to The Single. An artist or band goes to the trouble of putting out an album, I want to hear what they’ve put out, whole and entire, in the order they put it out. Going for The Single is picking through the omakase sushi, eating only the bits you already know you’ll like.Report

    • Avatar Sam in reply to BlaiseP says:

      BlaiseP,

      I don’t think your example holds. In each of these cases, I ate all of the sushi before me, then realized that much of it wasn’t like the piece that got me interested in the first place. This isn’t a case of somebody saying, “I’m not listening to rest of the record. I just want to listen to the single.” This is a case of somebody saying, “The rest of the record is entirely unlike the thing which encouraged me to buy the record in the first place.”

      In other words, imagine ordering the omakase sushi and getting one delicious piece of tuna and 12 ham-and-cheese sandwiches.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Sam says:

        Abunai, itamae-san! Hamu no sandoitchi wa — sushide wa arimasen! Iya!

        Point taken. Still, I think of an album as a complete thing. Being a child of ancient times, I never bought a 45. Playing a single required a certain amount of dexterity, best not attempted while inebriated, as was so often the case in my Mis Spent Yout’. I would listen to at least whole one side of a record.

        In these parlous times, with the young advancing all electric, things are different. My friend, T Herman Zwiebel observed:

        As my 142nd year of life approaches, I am once again astounded by the human tendency to assume that things will inevitably improve with the passage of time. Why, when I was born, women could not yet vote; smallpox claimed the life of most children under five years of age; and heroic American visionary General George Armstrong Custer was still alive. As none of these things are true today, we can conclude that the world is diminishing and becoming altogether less worthwhile. Knowing the details of its continual, and accelerating, slide into wrack and ruin is much like rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic.Report

        • Avatar Sam in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Worth noting – it isn’t necessarily true that the 12 ham-and-cheese sandwiches are bad. They’re just unlike the thing that you were expecting based upon the taste you’d gotten. I should have said more about this when writing the review, but several of the songs from the Daft Punk record might have been good on their own, within a different context, but not within the context that was created by pushing “Get Lucky” as the record’s first single.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Sam says:

            At some point along the line, I’m not sure when, every song got its own producer. This was not good. It led to your Ham Sandwich Phenomenon. Too many damned Guest Artistes also.

            For me, Random Access Memories starts with Give Life Back to Music. It’s a pitch-perfect recreation of the stuff I was dancing to back in 1977, right down to the thumping compressors. The guys responsible for that tune were two years old when I was going through that phase.

            It only seems polite to listen to the release as it was built. The Big Hit started with opera and it was not a good thing. “Oh, gosh, wasn’t that great, Hilda, let’s scream and shout until that wonderful man sings Nessun Dorma again.”

            Sure, some songs are better than others on the same release. But every musician has at least twice, maybe three times more material in the can, or these days, down on the 4TB drive, than will ever make it onto a release. I enjoy the idea of listening to the release, relishing the notion of the entire release as a cohesive unit, however improbable that might seem. Someone had to set those tracks in order. They thought about it. A few of us still pay attention to that stuff, though Lord knows most of this stuff isn’t a Concept Album any more.Report

  8. It’s not a mess thematically at all, it’s pretty clear what the theme is. If you expect every song on an album to sound exactly the same, then sure, just buy one song and play it over and over and over, but that has nothing to do with Daft Punk.

    And no, Get Lucky is not the best song on it. My vote now is for Lose Yourself to Dance, I’m sure that will change as I listen to it more. Is it slow and pondering? If the song Contact seems slow and pondering to you, what are you listening to that seems fast and whatever the antonym of pondering is….forgetting? Contact rocks as f*ck.

    If $15 is a big deal then figure out a way to get music for free, that’s what we all did when I was a kid. Taping a car radio straight to a boombox, the quality was almost as bad as an mp3, but that’s what we had to do to get music. I mean its just $15, be glad you didn’t pay to get it on vinyl.Report

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