Random Access Memories (Columbia)
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall of any given college dormitory on May 13, when Daft Punk’s obscenely anticipated fourth studio album was leaked online (illegally, then legally). EDM Nation must have caterwauled when they heard the disco basslines, the prog-rock flourishes, the melancholy comedown meditations and (gasp!) the sound of real instruments — despite those very elements being present on the French duo’s most revered album, 2001’s Discovery. That album, however, was largely meant for the dance floor. Random Access Memories is a headphone record, with few bangers to which one can shake one’s hips and foam glowsticks.
One can conjecture all day about Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter’s artistic aims. A reaction to the soulless electro-pop ruling the clubs? A history lesson for the kids unaware of house music’s African-American and Midwestern roots? An indulgent bask in nostalgia and hero worship? A chance to make dance culture’s version of Hotel California? But the takeaway remains that they ultimately absorbed and even hired their biggest musical influences (including Nile Rodgers of Chic and vanguard producer Giorgio Moroder) to make a collaborative, musically rich and emotionally complex record that’s nothing like the high-energy 2006-2007 Alive tour, with which they blew minds and resurrected Daft Punk. (Which might actually assuage fans disappointed with the pair’s non-plans to perform this year.)
There are, however, choral hooks and instrumental bait that lure you in; to use references from Daft Punk’s last studio record, this is real robot rock, fronted by a narrator who is human after all, sussing out all these newfound feelings of elation, romance and loneliness. (Imagine David from the movie A.I. as a young adult.) His soundtrack isn’t the bedroom laptop contemplations of the 2000s, but the shimmery, carefree grooves and cerebral guitar/synth arrangements of the 1970s and early 1980s. It’s unabashedly throwback and wholly interpretive at once; the nine-minute “Giorgio by Moroder” alone encapsulates this dynamic. A post-punk highway shuffle reminiscent of Tom Petty drives “Instant Crush,” the best thing Strokes vocalist Julian Casablancas has sung on in years. “Fragments of Time” recalls Steely Dan. Ironically, that dance-floor-unfriendly song includes the voice of house producer Todd Edwards (also the singer of Discovery’s “Face to Face”).
Daft Punk does periodically dust off the mirror ball, though it’s not for peak time. The usual Vegas resident DJ/producers will surely be speeding up the tempos of the spatial, mantra-like “Doin’ It Right” (featuring Animal Collective’s Panda Bear), as well as the equally catchy Pharrell Williams-assisted tracks, “Lose Yourself to Dance” and “Get Lucky,” the latter a reminder of just how good disco could be in the right hands.
The first spin may confound or underwhelm. The second listen, less so. The third and beyond, you’ll find yourself immersed in a retro-future world crafted with skill and inspiration by two men unapologetically worshipping uncool music. Hopefully the college kids give RAM a chance — Daft Punk will blow their minds again.
Modern Vampires of the City (XL Recordings)
The Caribbean and African roots are still there. But for album No. 3, the NYC quartet relied less on stylistic affectation and found an intrinsic way of musically communicating its earnest and often irresistible indie pop.
The actual making of Modern Vampires may have been anything but natural —a mixture of analog and digital recording, overdubbing and self-sampling, with unique miking that ought to have distanced singer Ezra Koenig from the music, rather than placed him perfectly within it — but it serves a band that, for all its colorful spunk, needed some sonic and emotional transcendence already.
Vampire Weekend, along with co-producer Ariel Rechtshaid, accomplishes that here, from the psychedelic lullabye “Step” to the LCD Soundsystem-gone-rockabilly firecracker “Diane Young,” both songs an exercise of economical arrangement and marvels of melodicism.
Surprises spring up all over the album, its lack of density creating the sense of anticipation, while also highlighting Koenig’s singing and storytelling (see centerpiece “Ya Hey”) — both sounding less precocious than they did on the band’s 2008 debut. Back then, it was so easy to dismiss him and his band as a novelty. Now, a more thorough swirling of its palette, along with a maturity that enables them to leave well enough alone, inches Vampire Weekend closer to the indie era-defining status of Arcade Fire.