Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Those Were My Jams, Jan-April: Daft Punk

More of the music I loved in the first four months of this year. And so from one example of French electronic dance music which uses a sheen of fiction to keep the real humans firmly behind the scenes (Kavinsky) to another. Daft Punk's Random Access Memories is on its way, the radio edit of Get Lucky is the first single, and it's spent the last two weeks infecting my brain. Here's why:



The most potent metaphor for how a Daft Punk record sounds is still Michel Gondry's video for Around the World. Five sets of cartoonish characters - robots, mummies, skeletons, synchronised swimmers, giant baby-headed athletes - each embody one element of the song, and are shuffled around, stopped, brought higher in the mix, according to the music.

Like all the best Daft Punk songs, that's pretty much exactly how Get Lucky works. There are a few basic sounds at play: a near-falsetto vocal hook and two verses, courtesy of Pharrell; the disco-future spangle of Nile Rodgers' guitar; some pelvis-thrusting bass; the simplest of drum patterns; and some handclaps. These essential building blocks are all established quite early on, the song's first minute just laying them out like a magician shows the audience a set of interlinked rings, or an empty sleeve.

Then, as they loop these base elements, Daft Punk start to work their magic. What if you stripped back the instruments, and pushed handclaps to the fore instead? What if you replaced Pharrell's voice with a decaying digitised version? And what if you then brought Pharrell back and made it him duke it out with his robotic double, at opposite ends of the octave?

The song just toys with those same few elements - and maybe some synths, though they sound as if they're building off samples of other bits of the same song - for 4 minutes 44 seconds, and then it fades out.

Honestly, there's not much to Get Lucky. It's a very slight song, in a way that invites being played on repeat (and knows that it will get just what it wants - that "Like the legend of the phoenix/All ends with beginnings" opening salvo is a cheeky wink). I'm talking about how it sounds, how it feels, the surface stuff, because I know if I probed any deeper I'd find it was hollow inside.

But the genius of the song lies in its precision. On the surface, it seems joyful and easy-going, but given that I haven't been this addicted to a song since the aural crack of Paper Aeroplanes, I can only conclude that it's actually very serious business.

Each sound is weighed out carefully, mixed in alchemically exact combinations, and ultimately weaponised into something that directly attacks my nervous system in a way that makes it get exceedingly funky. I don't think that's just dumb luck.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Those Were My Jams, Jan-April: Kavinsky


'Those Were My Jams' is one of those titles that suggested itself so forcefully I had to find a format to fit it. Given I've been looking for a way to briefly document the music I've been listening to, this seemed a perfect fit.

Roughly, it's intended to be an umbrella for hopefully regular chunks of fairly brief music writing at the end of every month or two. My music discovery habits have shifted a little this year, as I've stopped using This is My Jam, and replaced it with the collaborative Spotify playlist I share with friends, and the recent discovery of Songdrop

So what better way to share some of the best stuff that's landed in my nets?

KAVINSKY - OUTRUN

“The year was 1986. He was a teenager like any other, dreaming of his heroes and in love with a girl. But on a thunderous night along a ragged coast, a mysterious red car came to him, its power lighting his eyes blood-red.
In a flash, all was lost in the hellfire of twisted metal.
When our hero emerged from the burning wreckage, he and the car had become one, their souls spliced forever, leaving him to wander the night alone. Invisible to everyone… but her.”
That's how OutRun starts, with the aural equivalent of Star Wars' opening crawl. It sounds like the tagline for a bad '80s action film, of the kind you'd find on Channel 5 at 1am, or on a tattered VHS in a charity shop. It's equally stylish and ridiculous. It sets the scene perfectly.

OutRun is a record preoccupied with '80s trash culture. Take the cover – essentially a poster for the movie pitched in that intro. You could easily pick up the CD thinking it's a soundtrack, an impression that's only strengthened by the dozen stills from the same imaginary film throughout the album sleeve, which tell the same story, with the same focus: a man, and his car.



It seems a bit too easy to label OutRun as 'driving music', not to mention how ickily Jeremy Clarksonish the phrase feels, but it's certainly there in the album's DNA. It's no coincidence that Kavinsky came to most of our attention soundtracking the opening credits of Drive, a throaty voice intoning 'I want to drive you through the night' as Ryan Gosling did just that.

But that's all just trappings. The music – simple, pounding electro-pop of the kind you want to play at a volume that makes things shake – is more than strong enough to speak for itself.

Rampage sounds like Daft Punk on a stakeout. Odd Look sounds like it's being sung in a dark bar by the dame in a sci-fi film noir. ProtoVision sounds like a formula for metabolising every experience and feeling you've ever had and turning it into pure energy.

And Nightcall. From the moment you hear coin drops into the jukebox (or arcade machine, depending on your viewpoint), Nightcall still sounds like a slap around the face



There's an unmistakable house style here, but Kavinsky manages to draw in all sorts of other references along the way. Tracks riff on the soundtracks of '70s cop shows and exploitation movies, or drop in a rap. It runs the core sound through different filters, just in time to stop it getting boring. Deadcruiser is the feeling of the best bossfight never to appear in a Metal Slug game, condensed into 3 minutes 33 seconds.

Videogames are the other key reference point. The album is called OutRun, after all. It's exactly the kind of music that makes me wish I was really into a racing game right now, just so I could use it as an ad hoc soundtrack.

That's actually more or less how I've been using it in real life. The music practically demands movement. Not dancing – you feel Kavinsky's only interest in dancing is as seen under a strobe light, a series of cool poses. This is music for something with more forward momentum. Walking or running or riding a bike at night or, ideally, driving a really fucking nice car.

That's it, nearly – the itch that OutRun scratches so well. The single unique thing that it does, over and over, which I've spent all these words trying to pinpoint. What's left when you boil down all its pop-culture trappings. Which is, roughly: the feeling of going in a single direction, very very fast.




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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.