***1/2 (out of four)
Daft Punk has always made music that contemplates our relationship with technology, and much of what they foresaw has happened: Our loves are digital (i.e. OkCupid) and so is our music (i.e. Skrillex). The French electronic duo has become one of the most influential musical acts of its generation while limitless amazement about the future has mostly receded in favor of a digital culture interested in re-blogging random scraps of our past – say, a “Soul Train” video tweaked for a modern audience, as was done recently with DP’s single “Get Lucky.”
In that context, Daft Punk's potentially perplexing fourth album, “Random Access Memories,” is a perfect continuation of the group's mission. In most other ways, it is not. Those looking for the Daft Punk that made songs like “One More Time” will be disappointed. Those who have grown up as electronic music evolved in the years since Daft Punk's landmark 2001 album, “Discovery,” may give up as soon as they realize no drop is forthcoming. The group has abandoned computers and sampling in favor of live studio sessions with veteran performers like Nile Rodgers and John “JR” Robinson.
“Random Access Memories” is a direct homage to the type of light disco and jaunty synth-pop that was the source material of the source material of Daft Punk's early house music. The focus is the Internet's role in letting us tap into any type of nostalgia at will. At times, the album may sound like elevator music or something your cheesy uncle would listen to. It’s often boring and academic, as on the mini-documentary and Giorgio Moroder sampler platter “Giorgio by Moroder,” or wildly garish, as with the robohemian rhapsody of “Touch.” It is a little too long and frequently off-putting. In general, it is wildly uncool.
It's also frequently sublime, whether in the epic journeys the aforementioned songs lead the listener on, or in the upbeat funk of Pharrell features “Get Lucky” and “Lose Yourself to Dance,” which come across as more focused, accomplished versions of what the singer has been trying to do for years with his band N.E.R.D. The floating-in-space love songs “The Game of Love” and “Instant Crush” strip down Daft Punk classic “Digital Love” and look back to an era when a little bit of guitar noodling or some relaxed funk drumming paired with a vocoder could send our imaginations reaching for the stars. “Contact,” which actually samples an astronaut, explodes into heavily processed pieces around a propulsive rock song to close the album on a highlight.
The likelihood of “RAM” having the same kind of long-lasting influence as previous Daft Punk albums seems low, but that's kind of the point. Technology does not always make us better, faster or stronger, but it can provide a new way of looking at the past and an outlet for our imaginations.
Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic
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