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Review: Daft Punk's 'Random Access Memories' is robotic with heart

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For a sense of the random oddities that dot Daft Punk's strange, funky, cosmic new album, "Random Access Memories," consider a partial discography of the musicians employed by the two Frenchmen in service of its creation.

The duo, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, are best known for their use of robot helmets to mask their physical identities but employed prominent men whose résumé includes work for, among others, Michael Jackson, Jim Henson and Miles Davis.

Not a list you'd expect from a pair of Parisian human robots whose sophisticated, tech-savvy onstage performances atop a digital pyramid still sparks twinkles in the eyes of anyone lucky enough to witness it firsthand or whose three previous albums featured hard, fast, strong electronic rhythms crafted mostly on machines and to be consumed by a generation devoted to house and techno.

But "Random Access Memories," in all its disco-obsessed, historically accurate glory, confirms that Daft Punk cares little about expectations. After all, the pair has mysteriously and magically become the biggest name in electronic dance music at a moment when the genre's control of the charts is at a peak despite having not released a studio album since 2005. They have responded, though, with an analog love letter to another era and have done so not as heartless androids or "superstar DJs" but as two humans filled with the spirit of music, a touch of nostalgia and a desire for honest creation — who just happen to wear robot helmets.

"Random Access Memories," which comes out Tuesday, will no doubt be one of the most polarizing records of the year. If you hate disco and the notion of a synthesized voice uttering emo lyrics ("there is a game of love / this is a game of love / and it was you / the one that would be breaking my heart / when you decided to walk away"), move along without comment. You'll get only angrier as the 70-plus-minute album progresses.

For people who lived through or have internalized electronic dance music's evolution and permutations, who have experienced with awe-struck wonder the power of communal rhythm-based dancing experiences or simply like cool electronic rock songs that you can dance to, though, the record might strike a human nerve. For me, it feels brave, focused, dynamic and incredibly accomplished.

The 13 grand songs, many of which extend beyond six minutes, feature the work of, among others, Nile Rodgers (Chic, Talking Heads), Paul Jackson Jr. (Michael Jackson, Elton John, Whitney Houston), Omar Hakim (Miles Davis), the Strokes' Julian Casablancas, pedal steel player Greg Leisz (Beck, the Eagles), house producer Todd Edwards and others. Combined, Daft Punk's fourth studio album is a glossy, expertly crafted engine to an alternate universe, as though Daft Punk had outfitted a mint 1979 Porsche roadster with fuel cell technology, high-def sound, a disco ball and some laser-guided Moog lines.

This may be Daft Punk's first record in eight years, but a lot has happened to propel them to the heart of the pop conversation. LCD Soundsystem, perhaps the most influential American rock group of the last decade, feted the power of the Frenchmen on "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House." Apple licensed "Technologic" as the iPod was reaching its mass-market peak. Kanye West sampled Daft Punk's classic "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" and cited his debt to the band's aesthetic. The team's concerts atop a video-enhanced pyramid changed EDM performance.

Since then, Daft Punk has become about as above-ground as two masked men can be. But its response, "Random Access Memories," is nothing if not a challenge and a brash statement — equal parts revisionist experiment and visionary leap forward.

To word-meld, "Random Access Memories" is a re-visionary argument that explores and reimagines the sound of the past with an ear toward the future. I happen to love it, even if it's stubborn and at times cheesy and if there are moments when it's unclear whether the humans beneath the masks are winking.

I don't think they are. If technology is a steamroller that plows through the musical arts, morphing and shifting the soundtrack of the present while burying perfectly executed tones and approaches with deaf equanimity, then Daft Punk suggests on "Random Access Memories" that the "next level" is an illusion. That they combat this technological Tower of Babel by scouring the surroundings for mechanical wreckage is not only a valid response but aesthetically essential.

"Giorgio by Moroder" is fueled by Moroder's voice recalling his early years in Berlin while below him the rhythm of a Moog sequencer strobes like highway stripes. The haunting "Touch," featuring songwriter-actor Paul Williams ("Rainbow Connection," "Rainy Days and Mondays"), feels like a digitized pop interpretation of a Scott Walker dirge, a hymn to an analog past. "Fragments of Time" features a star turn by producer-vocalist Edwards; the instrumental "Motherboard" thrives via percussionist Omar Hakim, and feels like a rocket-propelled adaptation of his work with fusion-era Davis.

But then, I love disco, robotic voices and weird artistic statements. "Random Access Memories" features that trio, and catchy Niles Rodgers guitar lines, beautiful Pharell Williams falsetto runs and pianist Gonzales' gentle keyboard melodies. Nostalgic? Yes, at times it is. But the music, dense with sonic footnotes and perfectly placed audio curios, transcends such a simplistic interpretation. Moments are moments whether they remind you of the past or suggest a future. Daft Punk caught both.

randall.roberts@latimes.com

 

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