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Review: Daft Punk, Random Access Memories

Random Access Memories is simultaneously the most narcissistic and selfless gesture in Daft Punk’s career so far.

 

3.5

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Daft Punk, Random Access Memories

What trumps being a legend? Being a pioneer. The chrome-domed robots that jacked the bodies of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter on the eve of the 21st century long ago settled their claim on the former title (by my estimation, at the moment the fake-out kick drum at the beginning of the filter-disco epic “One More Time” gave way to the meaty thud of the real beat), but they evidently believe the latter can’t be earned through reputation alone, which is undoubtedly why they felt compelled to provide Giorgio Moroder the forum to compose his disco life and times for nine indulgent minutes. Daft Punk’s long-in-progress new album Random Access Memories, simultaneously the most narcissistic and selfless gesture in their careers so far, is a painstaking mission statement. It’s also often a pain.

If the album smacks of the willfully retrograde, well, it’s not like Discovery didn’t also bewilder audiences ready to have their asses assaulted by more ruthlessly thick loops on the order of “Da Funk.” The red alert for most thrill-seekers here will be the duo’s emphasis on live instrumentation, analog drumbeats, antiquated—not just retro, but downright ancient— synthesizer models and virtually no sample chopping. But the attentiveness to craft, the deployment of EQ naturalism, the emphasis on tantric repetitions with minor but crucial variations that characterize RAM have all been signposts of Daft Punk’s work in the past, to varying degrees. Not for nothing has the album’s pre-release build-up seemed to have been predicated on writing Human After All out of the history books and positing this as the heir to Discovery’s throne; there’s no room in this particular narrative to apologize for an album that, never mind their alleged affinity for it, was produced in a sloppy-fast two weeks. Not when they’ve achieved their Gaucho.

With shades of soul brothers in bemused detachment Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, Daft Punk’s work now hops between genres in a way that threatens to satisfy fans of none of them, dissecting the elements of each and filling the room with the sour odor of formaldehyde. Their music here is as unnervingly stiff and rewardingly labored as Steely Dan’s later albums, and also as rewardingly fussy. No one would dare dispute their bona fides now, but their genius seems directed at too-cool-for-school deconstruction, musicianship sublimated to presumptuous but mesmerizing instructiveness. Fagen and Becker were dedicated mixologists obsessing over the flavor profiles of their homemade bitters, but refusing to let the base spirit of any cocktail assert its own innate character. De Homem-Christo and Bangalter are cake bosses sculpting layers of neon fondant into stiff peaks simulating meringue, selectively editing out the cake itself. Legends sell recipes, but pioneers work without foundations. Why use bourbon or eggs when you can slip your captive audience Fernet Branca?

At almost every turn, RAM deliberately cheats its listening audience of the empty calories they’ve been weaned on. Even “Get Lucky,” the album’s now in retrospect deceptively reassuring lead single and the entire substance of Columbia’s promotional push thus far, is a model of reservation next to the likes of “Aerodynamic” or even “Technologic.” In sequence within the album, Pharrell’s smooth falsetto and Nile Rodgers’s tangy guitar voicing form a primer in basic groove architecture, no longer a retro commodity, but a simulacrum and, on this album, a genuine oddity.

But few other tracks on RAM are so ripe for dance-floor assimilation, despite their pleasures. “I remember touch,” gurgles the Phantom of the Paradise at the opening of the irresistible Paul Williams collaboration “Touch” before rejecting Eros and admitting, “I need something more.” The song is a barmy echo of the earlier “Giorgio By Moroder” in that both compress entire histories into miniature narratives conveyed via musical maximalism. “Giorgio By Moroder” hews relatively close to 1977, but “Touch” expands its scope to accommodate for everything from Williams’s ripe Tin Pan Alley showmanship, callisthenic wakka-chikka disco, and Ryan Tedder R&B bombast. “Give Life Back to Music” is a call to arms that opens the album with both barrels loaded, but unlike Discovery’s four-four quartet (without question one of the strongest opening sets of any album in the CD era), RAM drifts almost immediately into melancholia, like a theme and variations stemming from “Something About Us.” The vocodor that buzzsawed through “Digital Love” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” here underscores the downbeat love hangover of jazz-fusion artists submitting to 4 a.m. disco. “Beyond” and “The Game of Love” suggest breathers from Herbie Hancock circa Sunlight, and until they head back to the grid halfway through, “Motherboard” is straight Bob James.

RAM is an album that ultimately comes off having more respect for its spiritual predecessors than its listeners. Daft Punk aren’t necessarily presuming the mantle of pioneers so much as they’re using an LP to pay tribute to the roster of people they consider to have earned the designation. Some may call it arrogant and others will find it humble, but you have to love that not a single name attached to the album, nor a single reference point you could infer from the music within, would also be found on the tag cloud of Homework’s “Teachers.” DJs on the run.

Label: Columbia Release Date: May 21, 2013 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Dandy Warhols’s Why You So Crazy Is Eclectic but Unmemorable

Neither the album’s eclecticism nor its polish can make up for its lack of memorable songs.

2.5

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Why You So Crazy

The music video for “Be Alright,” the lead single from the Dandy Warhols’s Why You So Crazy, takes the viewer on an interactive 360-degree tour of the Odditorium, a city block-sized building in Portland that was purchased by the band in 2002 in order to serve as their headquarters and recording studio. On one level, it’s clever viral marketing, as the Odditorium is a commercial space, with booking information available online and a public-facing wine bar in the corner. But more importantly, it’s also a revealing glimpse at the cloistered conditions that have produced the last 15 years of the Dandys’s increasingly insular music.

Why You So Crazy unfolds in what is clearly meant to be a dizzying array of styles: from the 1930s Hollywood gloss of opening track “Fred N Ginger” (complete with an artificial 78 r.p.m. vinyl crackle), to the campfire gospel of “Sins Are Forgiven,” to the warped synth-pop of “To the Church.” Minute production details abound throughout: a stray melodica amid the tightly coiled electro of “Terraform”; a spectral, high-pitched piano line floating above the churning guitars of “Be Alright”; a general cacophony of Eno-esque electronic gurgles on the country pastiches “Highlife” and “Motor City Steel.” In short, the album sounds exactly like the product of a band with their own personal recording complex at their disposal and only the most nominal commercial pressures to fulfill.

Unfortunately, neither Why You So Crazy’s eclecticism nor its polish can make up for its lack of memorable songs. For all their stylistic diversity, most of the tracks here ride a single musical hook, like the metronomic bassline that opens “Thee Elegant Bum,” until they’ve reached an ostensibly acceptable length. It’s to the Dandys’s credit that their definition of acceptable song lengths no longer extends to the seven-, nine-, and 12-minute dirges that dominate 2005’s Odditorium, or Warlords of Mars, the album that not coincidentally put an end to their short-lived major label phase. But this is cold comfort when the four-and-a-half minutes of undulating synthesizer and droning guitar feedback that comprise “Next Thing I Know” seems to stretch into a small eternity.

Even frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor, not exactly a high-energy singer in the first place, seems to sleepwalk through much of the album—an impression enhanced when keyboardist Zia McCabe takes the lead for “Highlife.” Not only does McCabe’s Dolly Parton-ish chirp provide a welcome respite from Taylor-Taylor’s laconic drawl, but it makes for an instructive comparison with his blasé performance on the stylistically similar “Motor City Steel.” Neither song does much with the country genre besides wallow in its clichés, but while McCabe commits to her performance, Taylor-Taylor remains distant, exaggerating his pronunciation of Paris’s “Charlie DO-gal” airport as if he’s afraid of being taken too seriously. Similarly cloying is “Small Town Girls,” a paean to provincial womanizing that would feel trite had it been recorded when Taylor-Taylor was 21, let alone his current age of 51.

Of course, aesthetic distance isn’t necessarily a sin. Just ask Bryan Ferry and Mick Jagger, to name two of the Dandys’s more obvious influences. Nor, for that matter, is self-indulgence without its artistic virtues. Jack White—another survivor of the early-2000s alt-rock scene with his own recording complex (two of them, in fact)—released an album last year that Slant’s own Jeremy Winograd described as “at times close to unlistenable,” but at least it provided the creative spark White seemed to be looking for. The Dandy Warhols, by contrast, just seem to be treading water: releasing an album because they can and, with 2019 marking their 25th anniversary as a band, because they think they should. And while there are no wrong reasons to make music, there may be no reason less compelling than obligation.

Release Date: January 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Cherry Glazerr’s Stuffed & Ready Rages Against a Hostile World

The L.A. trio’s third album is a cathartic expression of estrangement in a cruel world.

4

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Stuffed & Ready

Clementine Creevy has always had a playful streak. At 15, she recorded her first songs under the name ClemButt, and her current outfit, the Los Angeles trio Cherry Glazerr, gained notoriety for a spaced-out, miniature ode to grilled cheese on their 2013 EP Papa Cremp. With Stuffed & Ready, Creevy’s signature irreverence has been transposed into scathing exasperation. The album rages against a hostile, misogynistic world, and then directs its venom inward.

That rage becomes the operating principle of Stuffed & Ready, which is Cherry Glazerr’s most mature and complex album to date. The opening track, “Ohio,” is a barometer for the ensuing ferocity, as a brief, lo-fi prelude crumbles into propulsive guitar noise. The music video for lead single “Daddi,” in which a solitary orange humanoid navigates a turbulent sea of blue creatures, captures the sense of alienation, confusion, and self-abasement that permeates the album. “Who should I fuck, Daddy? Is it you?” Creevy sneers in her characteristic falsetto. Her lyrics often vacillate between affirmation and uncertainty, probing for empowerment in a world that consistently renders her existence invalid. On “Self Explained,” she confesses, “I don’t want people to know how much time I spend alone.”

Under the direction of Carlos de la Garza, who also produced 2017’s Apocalipstick, Stuffed & Ready is Cherry Glazerr’s most sonically sophisticated effort yet. Musically, “Stupid Fish” is a gripping mash-up of the Smiths and early Sleater-Kinney, with sulking distortion interspersed with melodic bursts of Johnny-Marr-inspired guitar play. “Juicy Socks,” perhaps the album’s one moment of breathing room, finds Creevy playfully quipping over a shimmering guitar and florid bassline, “I don’t want nobody hurt/But I made an exception with him/I’m so lucky I can breathe/When the others cannot swim.”

Stuffed & Ready’s fiery denouement, “Distressor,” oscillates from an arpeggiated guitar and rolling drumbeat to a headbanging refrain. “The only faces I can see/Are the faces I pushed away from me/So I can just be,” Creevy wails, repeating the word “be” like a mantra. The album isn’t always hopeful, but it isn’t hopeless either, as it consistently provides a cathartic release for Creevy’s fury.

Label: Secretly Canadian Release Date: February 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated

Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.

3.5

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Guster, Look Alive

Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.

Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.

On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.

Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.

For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.

Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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