Monthly Archives: May 2013

Dan Funk

I used to get sneered or laughed at for professing a love of Steely Dan. They all know. Nothing on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories is so redolent of the 1970s-El-Lay-in-a-convertible vibe as “Fragments of Time”—a minor track on a maximalist album—but the approach Tomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo took, which is very much a throwback to the era of studious musicianship, permeates every moment of the album.

The signs are obvious and telling. The presence of session musicians who appeared on Thriller. The endorsement-via-occasional-fretwork from Nile Rodgers—one half of the disco hit machine Chic. The tacit foregrounding of guest stars, such as Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox and Julian Casablancas of The Strokes. Just as Walter Becker and Donald Fagen knew when to defer to the wisdom of the very best jazz musicians of their era, so do the French house duo (goodness, it feels reductive to label them as such anymore) take a backseat role from time to time, watching their creation unfurl like film directors.

It unfurls, and blossoms, and flourishes with a million orgiastic confetti-trails—when it absolutely has to. At other times, the album peddles a pretty relaxed aesthetic, as on much of the opener. “Give Life Back To Music” is a bold manifesto, but the delivery is subdued—bar the occasional guitar-and-synth swell. Daft Punk, and Rodgers, know when a few well-placed chucks of guitar can say just as much as a John Williams-sequence orchestral flourish. When those sweeping, gushing strings do make an entrance, as on “Touch”, they don’t steal from the song’s other engaging components. In the case of the eight-minute centrefold, there are intergalactic squiggles, a children’s choir, and Paul Williams’s elegiac crooning—and they all hold their own.

The other song with a bombastic orchestral arrangement is “Giorgio By Moroder”, and it might be the best song here. As you’ll well know, it features an oral history of the pioneering disco producer, narrated by the great man himself (and with each chapter recorded into a different era’s microphone). Look past the gimmickry of this; even dare to look past the craziness of the song’s structure (in its concluding passage, a drum solo from Omar Hakim does battle with disc-scratching and Guitar Hero-worthy tapping)—this is a song about Daft Punk lionizing the great ‘directors’ of music, who struggled and toiled till, eventually, their genius was appreciated. Moroder slept in the back of his car and borrowed a professor’s Moog modular; Becker and Fagen had to break free from the suburbs, and day-jobs as pop songwriters. So Bangalter and de Homem-Christo had to retire the samples and the drum machines, the cut-up vocals and the sequenced Van Halen. The vocoders remained, but little else.

Given the anticipation, the hype, and the terrifyingly slick marketing assault mounted by Columbia Records, it’s hard to avoid thinking about the wider impact of Random Access Memories. Daft Punk’s first two, iconoclastic albums spawned a thousand imitators, as did their totemic live performances atop a pyramid (consider how they ushered in the era of the globe-trotting, laptop-toting celebrity DJ). In both albums’ cases, the legacy subsumed memories of that which made the original great. Homework was loving pastiche from fanboys in their teenage bedrooms, but it begat monolithic slabs of artless house music. Discovery was delicately glam and nuanced, but what followed quickly grew monotonous and bereft of personality. For better or worse (but ultimately worse) the pop world’s string-pullers slavishly adopted Daft Punk’s poses. In the French pair’s near-six year absence, several banal trends in electronic music captivated pop music. First, there was the formulaic, tiresome dance music best exemplified by Tiesto. Then, there was the ineluctable rise of bro-step. Both are dreary, and don’t merit much description.

At Steely Dan’s zenith, copycats tried to apply the same slick arrangements to lesser material. No one had the wit or charm or chops to ape Becker and Fagen. The same arc will follow Random Access Memories. If it makes Madonna, or some other superstar, or at least their manager, look up and change course, we’ll have much to thank Daft Punk for. As the ubiquity of ”Get Lucky” on mainstream radio stations and at the dying hours of a thousand house-parties has shown, conventional tastes are fickle, sporadic and non-linear. The effect will only be transient, but might heal a few bleeding ears.

Of course, Steely Dan were more grounded in the society they lived in than Bangalter and de H.-C., neither hiding behind masks nor letting their songs escape into orbit. The themes addressed on Random Access Memories are universal—the power of love to overcome, the joy music brings to our lives—rather than socially provocative or analytical. But I challenge listeners to spend very long with the album before returning to its slickness and willingness to engage with genres deemed uncool—the Broadway musical (“Touch”), New Age piano (“Within”), world music (“Motherboard”). It’s in this respect that comparisons with Aja feel appropriate.

The closing track on Random Access Memories, “Contact”, is screamingly portentous, but the way it collapses in on itself rather than building to a colossal finale suggests Daft Punk have a well-cultivated sense of humour that’s sui generis. The first time I heard the song, I thought they were closing a chapter, not just on their career, but on the age of recorded music. It is a terminus, I proposed, after which no further musical journeys are possible. Repeated listens brought greater solace: it’s actually more of a sonic joke; like a shonky electronic experiment by Delia Derbyshire. Daft Punk sit atop the charts, however improbably, but they won’t sell millions—few auteurs do. But the most commercially viable aspects of their new groove will trickle down, in diluted form, to lowest common denominator pop music. And they’ll be chuckling about that, too.

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Life From Above: DFA at 12

When you turn twelve, that’s the last time you’ll be excused from something on the grounds of youth. Adolescence, moody and laden with growing pains, beckons. Having fun isn’t just an end within itself anymore. You at least think you have to stand for something more.

It’s startling how one record label has come to define and inform so much of my record collection. DFA. New Yorkers at the turn of the twenty-first century: whisper those three letters in hushed tones of awe. Teenagers across the Atlantic, breaking free of the moribund: if you can’t party like your idols, at least make your bedroom hi-fi sound like you can. For me, it wasn’t “House of Jealous Lovers”, the first time. It couldn’t have been—I would have been a couple of years too young. It was “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House”, raucous and clattering and just startlingly good fun. From there on in, it was about every single and album the label released.

If there was a peak, it was 2007: the year Sound Of Silver broke a thousand people’s hearts and then reassembled them with the science of dance; the year those first house throwbacks from Still Going and Hercules And Love Affair made us take note of an alternate history that isn’t taught in school. That year, James Murphy and his label were prolific and untouchable. The Fabriclive.36 mix, jointly helmed by Murphy and LCD Soundsystem’s sweaty, machine-like drummer Pat Mahoney (who professed a love of “gay-ass disco”) was spun out through a vintage Bozak mixer.

If there was a peak, there was a trough. At LCD Soundsystem’s farewell concert in 2011, Murphy is said to have anointed Janine Rostron as the successor to the throne of DFA. Rostron, who performs under the nom de plume of Planningtorock, is an artist to admire more than one to truly love. Her music is androgynous, dark and scary, from the world of art where people still decamp to Berlin to experience isolation. In my books, that makes her the antithesis of what DFA is about. Artists on the label’s roster have challenged listeners in the past (the various outfits Gavin Russom performs in, for example), but at its heart, I’ve always thought Liv Spencer of Still Going summed up DFA’s idée fixe best: “It’s about people going to clubs, forgetting their shitty week—or their great week—and just kind of like, dancing until the sun comes up.”

Rewind to 2008 and there were two pretty apposite acts on the label poised to offer just such fun. That was the year Hercules And Love Affair released their eponymous debut: a giddy survey of forty-odd years of disco, tinged with regret and higher thoughts, but located firmly on the dancefloor. That was also the year Maurice Fulton hid behind a fictitious Finnish trio called Syclops to release a full-length called I’ve Got My Eye On You. Uninhibited by definitions of genre, the album pitted jazzy live drumming against obnoxious synths and fretless basses, managing to sound fairly timeless and geographically nonspecific, and also like a lot of fun. Reading reviews of the album from the time, you’d think DFA were serving up the hipster’s answer to Jamiroquai. For Brandon Bussolini of Prefix, “Syclops’ main points of reference center less on the dance floor than the heavier end of the jazz-fusion spectrum […] churning, cosmic disco-funk that make up this album—a high point for dance music in 2008 and yet another feather in DFA’s cap”.

Here were two exciting visions of the DFA code, backed by a label with seemingly limitless reserves of cool, and handily positioned in the penumbra of the band, LCD Soundsystem, that was helping everything make sense. (For one publication’s take on just what an important family the label had become, see this.) At one point, Murphy’s vision, to break down the barrier between dance and punk, looked poised to crossover into the mainstream: the label was courted by representatives of Britney Spears and Janet Jackson, and was invited to remix Justin Timberlake’s “My Love”. The first two avenues led nowhere; the third resulted in a subtle reinvention of a stone-cold modern classic that ought to now be seen as a pure statement of the DFA sound. Cowbells, handclaps, Simmons pads and acoustically-dead live drums (Murphy’s trick was to dampen the sound of the drums by affixing neoprene mouse pads to them) provide a thudding, dancefloor-ready rhythm. Filtered Rhodes and fluttering, pulsing synths are the vertebrae to which Timberlake’s vocal theatrics are pinned. The final few minutes ride a gloriously soulful, lightly-distorted bass guitar line. These were much the same components that made LCD Soundsystem songs snap, crackle and pop.

But then LCD Soundsystem closed shop. Suddenly, because DFA had been mes que una compañía discográfica, we had to start looking for a new totem. DFA couldn’t be just a label—it needed a new icon for other artists to rally around. The Rapture had been, gone, and come back in an altered form. Hot Chip had achieved universal acclaim for their universal pop music. Murphy’s heiress, Planningtorock, didn’t really cut the mustard.

DFA has lately been responsible for a splurge of releases. The quality is more variable than in those golden years, when a monthly trip to the label’s MySpace page seemed to yield some new, strange fruit. But there are nuggets of excitement. Factory Floor are a London trio on the label who make pretty industrial (look at their name—is it really a surprise?) long-format bangers. They don’t have an album out yet—though it’s in the works—but what they’ve released to date is brutal, exciting stuff.

Listening to something like “Fall Back” (see above), they’re not a million miles away from the frantic, relentlessly locked-in Nisennenmondai. Could this be where the DFA vision is headed—or is there no longer such a thing? In their 2008 feature on the label, The Fader interviewed Jonathan Galkin, the ‘ears’ and also the ‘Jewish mother’ of DFA. “At the same time, I feel like we’re at the top of our game. It’s kind of bittersweet,” said Galkin.

Watching Red Bull’s recent documentary about DFA, “Too Old To Be New, Too New To Be Classic” (one of several mantras the label has), my heart was pierced by the inescapable feeling that the trifecta at the core of the label has drifted apart. Murphy, having disbanded the outfit that accidentally took over his life for eight years, is busy doing the things he missed out on—marathon DJ sets; production-work for friends of his like Arcade Fire; considering branching out into coffee. Tim Goldsworthy, the Brit production whizz-kid who co-founded the label, disappeared in the middle of the night and wound up mixing albums for Archie Bronson Outfit, The Maccabees and Little Boots; the label is currently suing him for close to $100,000. Which leaves Galkin, stuck in that West Village office, choosing which 12” singles to put out, packing vinyl and merchandise for dispatching to the forever faithful (myself included), and generally handling the day-to-day commercial realities of a record label. In the film, at one point he turns to look at the neighbouring swivel-chair Murphy used to sit on, now vacant much of the time. It’s hard not to feel a little pang of remorse akin to Murphy’s, in “Shut Up And Play The Hits”, upon inspecting a room full of his band’s gear, waiting to be sold or boxed away.

While the mousepads are still firmly on the drums and the analogue synths are still being lovingly restored, I’ll continue to believe there can be life from above. But while there’s still a DFA family, it’s getting harder to see where it’s heading. And soon they won’t have pre-teen youthfulness on their side.

Seabirds and seabeds

When Hot Chip performed in Manchester on their joint-header tour with LCD Soundsystem, the two bands joined forces at the end of the show for a cover of the Alessi Brothers’ breezy, soft-rock gem, “Seabird”. A couple of years later, a British trio called Vondelpark, with a vocalist whose brotherly mumble resembles that of Joe Goddard, have released their debut album, Seabed, which evokes a rather similar mood. Continue reading Seabirds and seabeds