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.

The 80s – Back to the Future

Towards the end of the 70s, there was a change in the air. For a decade now, rock music was becoming ever more progressive and experimental. The social emancipation and rise of recreational drug use as expressed in The Summer of Love had infiltrated music and mainstream culture in general.

In the latter half of the 60s, musicians had become dissatisfied with apparently stifling pop-song conventions, such as under-3-minute running time or the verse-bridge-chorus form. An interesting parallel took place in cinema – many film directors were also feeling their artistic expression was being hindered by moral censorship as expressed in the Motion Picture Production Code, and they eventually led to its demise.

So the 70s were full of progressive or psychedelic rock bands, concept albums, 20-minute guitar solos as well as pretentious subject matter. The silver screen reflected this zeitgeist of self-indulgence and artsy-fartsyness, with directors beginning to rival film stars in celebrity status. Back in the world of music, certain subcultures such as disco continued music production along more traditional lines unabated.

Not that this explosion of expressionism was all for the worse; the 70s produced a lot of great music and art, often because of – and not despite – their solipsism. The most important thing to consider, though, is that this period of excess had to happen before a synthesis of new and old ways could emerge. This synthesis was the 1980s New Wave. Having gone through the looking glass and reached aesthetic bankruptcy, the popular music world was looking for a way back home like a prodigal son…

Even though the synthesizer was gaining prominence at this time, the synthpop that emerged with its help has been called ”perhaps the single most significant event in melodic music since Mersey-beat”. So while reaching for a cutting edge, futuristic instrument, musicians were increasingly looking back to traditional, time-honored songwriting and melodies as if in counter-revolt to the iconoclastic bohemianism before them. This Hegelian perspective effectively makes the term “synthpop” a double entendre.

Of course, not all of the 80s was about synth pads and electro beats (although synthesizer and drum machines are no doubt iconic symbols of the decade). The prevailing feeling was of fun and flamboyance instead of the serious introspection and self-conscious intellectualism that had become so commonplace. Suddenly it was ok again to make 3-minute pop songs about love or dancing… with admittedly novel quirks such as sci-fi motifs and anaemic (almost robotic) performance styles. At the same time, the new wave often betrayed the geopolitical tension of the times; the spectre of nuclear war permeating a lot of professional creative activity.

So the return to good old, formulaic, crowd-pleasing songs and melodies after the cultural rebellion of the 60s and 70s was inevitable. It reinvigorated music and introduced the world to the sound of the future.

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″