Daft Punk – La belle loop

Daft Punk certainly don’t need any introduction these days. More certainly, any discussion of them doesn’t need my two cents but I feel like singing their praises today. I’ve been a fan since I was 14, a hundred years ago it seems. It was then that my older brother and I embarked on a brave journey to the local mall to purchase our first CD – Daft Punk’s debut album “Homework”. More precisely, it was our first-ever album not pre-approved by our dad or necessarily aligned with his musical tastes.

A critical analysis of Daft Punk’s oeuvre doesn’t seem necessary even now after all these years, because ever since their first big hit “Da Funk” that summer of ’97, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s music has been marked primarily by its indisputable and transcendental coolness. At first, we struggled to wrap our heads around the sheer repetitiveness of Daft Punk’s songs; looping incisively in endless multiples of four bars before introducing new instruments/sounds. These weren’t traditional songs but scantily-clad, shameless beats with simple hooks that would be difficult to maintain interest if performed on traditional instruments as opposed to synths, drum machines, samplers or vocoders. Still, we loved it. There was no denying the visceral propulsion of tracks like “Around the World,” “Phoenix,” ”Alive,” or “Indo Silver Club.”

This, of course, heralded the advent of a new era of ‘electronica’/EDM and Daft Punk were far from being the only exponents of this nascent scene. But for their sophomore effort “Discovery”, Thomas and Guy-Manuel went a little deeper into their toolboxes than most, and crafted a lot of actual songs in the old-fashioned sense of the word. This album is an important milestone in terms of the emerging retromania that would come to dominate huge swathes of the musical landscape in the early 21st century. I’m talking about the ubiquitous fetishism or morbid fixation on musical styles and idioms of the relatively recent past. As far as Daft Punk is concerned, their specialization became a quaint spin on and combination of 70s and 80s disco, funk, house and synthpop.

And even though their work begins to take on more form and musical development, the point also seems to be to evoke specific musical and cultural impressions from around the time of the French duo’s childhood. “One More Time,” “Digital Love,” “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” and “Something About Us” are good examples of this more complex songwriting, whereas “High Life,” “Veridis Quo” or “Short Circuit” harken back to their tried-and-true loop-mode, with incessant figures and samples taking their time in giving way to new layers of sound. The closing piece “Too Long” is a 10-minute-long hybrid of both these worlds, the title of which appears to be Daft Punk’s tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of their many sins against brevity. Even with this excessive running time, the song is a guilty pleasure to listen to just as it clearly was to write…

For many fans, their third album “Human After All” seemed to be a step backward (or in the wrong direction, at any rate) with its short track-list and regression to unsparing loops and samples, which Wynton Marsalis would probably dismiss as brain-atrophying noise best suited for welders. But by this point, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo had long begun to fashion a semi-backstory to their music, with their robotic alter egos clearly taking centre-stage ever since their emergence circa 2001 and rationalizing this recurrent, robotic aesthetic. (Daft Punk even released a feature film starring these robots – their second cinematic outing. They even design furniture. Yes, that’s how cool they are…) As with the abstract expressionism of a Jackson Pollock, the classic debate pitting charges of sloth and pretension against artistic vision and refined minimalism was imminent. Nevertheless, this album does not fail to bombard the listener with Daft Punk’s incomparable brand of coolness. Best songs: “Human After All,” “The Prime Time of Your Life,” “Make Love,” and “Emotion.”

And then… silence. The songwriting duo went on an 8-year hiatus. But the wait paid off for fans with the release of “Random Access Memories” last year. With this album, Daft Punk’s robotic, almost somnambulistic, towards retro-gurudom is, for all intents and purposes, complete. And it is directly analogous to their maturation as songwriters. For me, the much-trumpeted shift to traditional instruments and star-studded collaborations take a back-seat to the compositional leaps and bounds contained herein (even considering the assistance of co-writers here and there).

The whole album – save the sample-driven closer “Contact” – testifies to this. It showcases a variety of styles and approaches all culminating in outstanding songs. The French duo even fashions a few ambitiously progressive, lengthy set-pieces, though very much the antithesis of a “Too Long”, which easily could have been half its length. They even get a little solipsistic at times, but its all good because this is in keeping with much of 70s creativity. I could write for another two hours about this release, and maybe I will some other time…

So Thomas and Guy-Manuel have found their way to the source of great songcraft, even if it was in chasing a synthy disco-funk will-o’-the-wisp. These consummate masters of pastiche have actually created something derivative that is really standalone and unique. And really cool.

Jean Michel Jarre – Composer vs. Innovator

Jean Michel Jarre (1948-) is one of the most influential popular composers of the late 20th century, though he is mostly unknown in the United States and Canada. Son of the renowned French film composer Maurice Jarre (who scored classics such as David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”), he almost single-handedly inspired the electronic dance music that has spawned countless subgenres and is as ubiquitous now as sliced bread.

Of course, the general consensus with regards to the origins of synthpop (the proto-EDM) is that it was inspired by German synth outfits, with Kraftwerk at the helm. Yet these were avant-garde krautrockers, who didn’t really set out to do pop music. Jarre did, providing a more direct and logical precursor for 80s synthpop. This, even though his very popular music had no lyrics (which is uncommon particuarly in North America). Jarre’s music is still often described as experimental and artsy even though his appeal clearly stems from his uncanny ability to write timeless, catchy tunes.

And this appeal is massive even after over four decades in the music business. Starting with his 1976 debut “Oxygène”, his albums have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide and attendance at his spectacular open-air concerts has been record-breaking. His place in popular music is undisputed. Yet this place is often relegated to just his technical accomplishments as a synth pioneer. At times, one wonders whether Jarre things any differently - being that he is often more interested in talking about his equipment than melody-making.

Jarre also often credits his one-time mentor, Pierre Schaeffer, the developer of musique concrète (an experimental school of music where a variety of recorded sounds are sampled), with shaping his musical philosophy and prefers to talk about the textures he constructs with synthesizers instead of notes and chords. Indeed, Jarre is considered an exponent of musique concrète even though this background alone would not have propelled him far. His compositional wizardry did.

So whether perceived positively or negatively, Jarre’s music being ‘electronic’ and ‘experimental’ seems to obscure most discussion of its other qualities. The fact that synthesizers or sampling never really became mainstream doesn’t help either. For example, to this day the theremin isn’t taken seriously as an instrument but is associated with 1950s B-movies about alien invasions… and Jarre’s music has actually been referred to as ‘space music’.

Perhaps in response to this kind of disparagement, Jarre once remarked that what he has done with synthesizers in the 20th century is no different from what a Joseph Haydn was doing in the 18th. Namely, both musicians utilized the most advanced technologies of their day. Clinging to traditional instruments (orchestral or other) just as dismissing cutting edge instruments (such as synthesizers) as ‘spacey’ or ‘futuristic’ misses the point of music-making. This is the fault of our superficial cultural clime, which is content with letting personal or collective impressions trump reality. Projection, it seems, is the norm.

At the end of the day, Jarre has succeeded in being ‘descriptive without words’ – a musical ambition he has had since hearing jazz in his childhood. He is also living proof of the power of the melody to trump all other considerations in music, from technical to philosophical.

Some recommended listening:

“Happiness Is A Sad Song” – from Jarre’s musique concrete days

“Equinoxe 7″

“Magnetic Fields 2″

“Zoolookologie”

“Chronologie 4″ – live in Barcelona

“Oxygene 10″

Delta Blues

I recently started reading a fascinating book about the origins of the blues, “Delta Blues” by Ted Gioia. I’ve always been intrigued by this chapter in music history, which to a large extent will forever be shrouded in mystery, inspiring endless debate and conjecture and stirring the imagination.

The Delta blues is the original blues; the proto-blues, which inspired all the other offshoots and changed the course of music forever. “Delta” here denotes an alluvial plain found alongside the Mississippi river in northwestern Mississippi (not the actual mouth of this great river) and has been called ‘the most Southern place on earth’.

Although no one knows the precise origin of the blues, the Delta is the place where it flourished like in no other. This raw and powerful music, which would revolutionize and reinvigorate music the world over was developed by the impoverished black rural population of this region. These musically untrained farmers and manual laborers sang and used mostly stringed instruments, like the guitar – often constructing them out of everyday objects.

The sound they developed turned traditional music theory, scales and aesthetic on its ear, introducing into music a hitherto unknown mode of expression, equivalent to the introduction of a new primary color or a new dominant strain of DNA into the world. This blue hue of the blues is now present in some concentration in most of the popular music we hear.

Yet it originated simply as a way of expressing the peculiar woes of an oppressed people, who had been practically forgotten by history and by mainstream American society. The sharecroppers who lived on Southern plantations really had little apart from their call-and-response work songs to mitigate their plight of endless toil and racial subordination. On some plantations that served as penal institutions, the blues as well as chants, work songs, hollers and spirituals flourished with even more fervor, literally becoming a means of survival.

So apart from the musical specifics of the blues, with its blue notes, dominant chords and twelve-bar forms is this purely human aspect. And Ted Gioia does a wonderful job of narrating the lives of the legendary and colorful pioneering masters of the blues. All these guys - John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and many others – each left their indelible, trademark stamp on the blues, shaping our definition of what the blues ought to be and inspiring some of the most enduring stereotypes of the rambling bluesman as well.

These people of the soil, who worked the land until they were finally set free by their music, were often elusive, disappearing after recording sessions until tracked down again by scouts. Some were in and out of jail (often for shootings and other violent crime), with serious drinking or drug problems; with affairs and illegitimate children all over the South. Some died in suspicious circumstances, never really being able to shake their underworld entanglements. In some ways, these blues biographies foreshadowed the lives of future rappers and hip hop culture in general.

The blues (the music, the history and the culture) is an endlessly fascinating subject for music lovers, stirring and reinvigorating the imagination (musical or other) with its direct and raw, earthy power.

Charlie Chaplin – Composer

Although Charles Spencer Chaplin (1889-1977) is remembered as one of the greatest and most iconic comedians of the silver screen, it is not common knowledge that he was an accomplished composer, scoring the films he starred in. This is hardly surprising, though, since the fact that he was a true auteur – writing, directing and editing his movies – is also largely overlooked.

He was a peerless film scorer – maybe the most melodic film composer ever; or at least of the first half of the 20th century. A self-taught musician who never learned to read or write notation, Chaplin had a prodigious grasp of mood, character and situation – introducing another dimension to films he made in the silent movie era almost a hundred years ago. He seemed to effortlessly evoke pathos, irony, romance, abandon, delight, mischievousness or trouble.

Chaplin’s colorful melodies ascend and descend, hop along, jump and dive in a lively and ornate style uniquely Chaplinesque. His leitmotifs could tell the entire emotional side of his stories without the images. He could write waltzes and tangos, marches and ballads with sublime, haunting and indelible melodies often harkening back to his vaudevillian roots.

One example is the song “Smile”, which was taken from his score for “Modern Times” and supplied with lyrics. It has become a standard sung by countless performers, such as Michael Jackson, yet its authorship would come as a surprise to most. Other famous melodies include the theme from “Limelight” or “This Is My Song”, famously sung by Petula Clark (also featuring in Chaplin’s “The Countess from Hong Kong”).

And far from being predictable and just complementing or illustrating the moving images, Chaplin would create irony by countering the action with a different mood. A great example is the iconic scene in “The Gold Rush”, where Chaplin’s famous Tramp character, after being stranded in the Klondike, is forced to eat his shoe out of starvation. Instead of underscoring the humor and absurdity of the situation with a quirky, off-beat tune, Chaplin supplies us with a charming little waltz; pointing instead to what the Tramp is fantasizing about instead of reality.

At the end of the day, Charlie Chaplin was a great composer of music, whether accompanying a film or not. He’s my favorite composer, hands down. It has been suggested that greatness is best measured by the number of great melodies a composer wrote and how ubiquitous they have become. And Chaplin is one of the most melodic… Still, he is simply not as well remembered as a king of melody like Tchaikovsky. It’s undoubtedly because this immense talent of Chaplin’s was overshadowed by his many other talents…

Some other music to check out:

Suite from “The Kid”

A waltz from “The Kid”

“Bitter Tango” from “Monsieur Verdoux”

Music from “Pay Day”

A tune from “City Lights”