Broke with Expensive TasteAt the very least, the dramatic and unexpected release of Azealia Banks’ debut album is a relief. Her one bona fide hit, the filthy and fantastic “212”, was released in 2011 and talk of her first album, mainly by Banks herself, has been on, off and on again pretty much consistently since then. Some three years later and Beyonced onto iTunes at 7.00pm on a cold Thursday in early November “Broke with Expensive Taste” finally saw the light of day. We can all now move on; Banks, the naysayers, the many she has horrified with brattish abuse via her volatile twitter account -- let’s go and fix our glare on the new kid. Maybe the surprise then is that there is a lot more to Azealia Banks than being a big dirty mouthed one- hit wonder. The breadth and rush of the consistently surprising, eccentric but accessible tracks here is absolute proof that she knew what she was doing all along. One of the most interesting and revealing aspects of Azealia Banks first full length release proper is all of the things that it is not. There is no EDM, and although this is most definitely a dance record, no dubstep, no grand-standing features and no sign of the kind of producers that eclipse the artist themselves and are usually called in for last minute emergencies. In fact the one track that was produced by and featured the ubiquitous Pharrell Williams (the lacklustre and generic “ATM Jam”) has wisely been left off. The Williams collaboration was forced upon Banks by her then record company (she has since left Interscope, to call it a rocky relationship would appear an understatement) to bag an easy hit, as is often the case, and by all accounts represents the reasons why “Broke with Expensive Taste” has suffered such a long and bumpy ride to release. Banks is not an artist who is willing to compromise or curtail her artistic impulses and this is made abundantly clear here. Album opener “Idle Delilah” has clattering pots and pans percussion, a fuzz-box island guitar riff and a chorus, if it can indeed be called that, that consists only of  a chopped- to- utter -smithereens Brandy sample from her hit  “I Wanna Be Down” which is rendered utterly unrecognisable here.  This is to support Banks warbling but radiant rap and vocal lines laid out over a building house beat. “Desperado” and “Gimme a Chance” go down different roads entirely; the former has Banks speeding sulkily over an old and moody MJ Cole 2-step track, “Bandelero Desperado”, with muted trumpet and an unmistakeable British identity whilst “Gimme A Chance” references early hip-hop scratching and a Ze Records “Off the Coast of Me” dead – eyed sung chorus. This all comes before the second half of the track which explodes into Latin American horns with Banks both singing and rapping in Spanish. “JFK” is a snooker balls-cracking house track with vocal inflections mimicking an almost operatic narrative of the vogue balls and creative rivalry and “Wallace” has dark cavernous drums, a blink and you’ll miss it Missy Elliott reference, and might be about a dog. At this point it is hard to accept that the album has not even reached its half-way point, such is the diversity and ambition that is alluded to. The album’s middle section is its most conventional and traditionally urban, all of the tracks are rapped. “Ice Princess” in particular, which is a variation on Morgan Page’s “In The Air” hit, proves that Banks can more than hold her own in commercial rap; her rhymes are effortless and engaging, often surreal,  with a flow that is sharp but soothing. “Soda” is a popping, taut house track that sounds like little else coming out of the urban genre or any other stable at the moment  and is completely sung in Banks highly distinctive swooping, and occasionally flat, contralto. It introduces the last act of the album and at this point some of the admittedly unexpected flow of the first half does suffer, due mainly to “Nude Beach a Go-Go”. Produced by Ariel Pink with an intense love or loathe quality, it sounds like a Beach Boys carol about the joys of nude beaches (‘Do you jingle when you dingle-dangle? Everybody does the bingle-bangle’) as imagined by the B 52s who already have a song called ‘Theme for A Nude Beach’. It is quite a lot to take in and is probably brilliant but is jarringly sandwiched between the album’s deepest house tracks, the alluring triptych of “Luxury”, “Miss Camaraderie” and “Miss Amor”. The decision to include older tracks here, including ones already featured in Banks 2012 “Fantasia” mixtape (and yes, “212” is also here), is the only misstep that hinders the irresistible freshness “Broke With Expensive Taste”. Not only are they the weaker tracks in the majority but they overload the track listing to sixteen and subsequently dilute the potential power of the lesser-heard and superior material. The real surprise here though is that Azealia Banks could not get this album released in the first place; this is the stuff that classic debut albums are made and is massive indictment of the state of the music industry in 2014. An unreserved success still, with “Broke with Expensive Taste”, Azealia Banks has ably demonstrated that the fight was most definitely worth it and has emerged from the other side as an important, original and necessary artist.

Kiss me OnceThe definitive ‘Kylie Sound’; it’s what Kylie herself and pop obsessives everywhere are desperate to identify, capture and then immortalise and never has this felt more apparent than on “Kiss Me Once”, her twelfth studio album. Her biggest hits are studies in expert song writing, of-the-moment production and perfect execution. From “Hand On my Heart” to “Slow”, “Spinning Around” to  “Can’t Get you Out of My Head”, all effortless sounding pop from an artist who has more than proved her worth as a leader in the field. This album sees her again working with some of the most de rigueur and established writers and producers available with reclusive pop extraordinaire herself, Sia Furler, curating the entire project. Kylie’s first album for Jay Z’s Roc-A-Fella has not come cheap it, seems. Three albums worth of songs have been recorded over the album’s two year creation and many have deemed not worthy of inclusion. For example none of the collaborations with Minogue’s new partner on the reality talent show The Voice, will.i.am, are here, a cause for celebration for some. So what exactly has made the finishing line and does the Kylie Sound of 2014 live up to some of her previous heady years? Yes and no.

The first half of “Kiss Me Once” is indeed the most problematic and some of it is best got out of the way as quickly as possible before the really good stuff starts to cut through and rise to the sheeny, shiny surface. Lead single “Into the Blue” is smart and solid -- very much a ‘Kylie’ song -- and contains a string section that is uplifting and vocal phrasing and beats that are certainly in keeping with current chart fodder. It is however disappointing in its overall niceness and lack of originality.  Kylie’s best songs have also incorporated the unexpected with the familiar and for a song leading us into a new era it is not exactly encouraging. There are then two songs which both, at Sia’s insistence, contain the word ‘sex’ (a third follows later of a different standard entirely) and almost suggest the onset of a concept album. “Sexy Love” comes first and is a wholly derivative Daft Punk/Chic/”Holiday” hybrid which has tons of sunny Kylie enthusiasm in the place where the song should be. “Sexercise”, a Furler co-write, follows and is the most cynical three minutes here. It’s a focus-grouped, trend-chasing attempt at maintaining her Grindr demographic in addition to securing just one more USA hit, urban style. It’s horrible and if you liked Madonna’s “Hard Candy” weaker moments that it may just be your favourite.

Pharrell Williams, currently as ubiquitous a producer as Sia is writer, thankfully comes to the rescue with “I Was Gonna Cancel”. Seems Williams understands the Kylie DNA better than he did Madonna’s. A joyous, confident and supremely carefree disco tune that has a nice pinch of ‘fuck you!’ about it. With its “I Want Your Love” bassline and bells that resemble Blondie’s “Rapture”, this is the first song here where Kylie sounds like you might expect her to given the diverse talent that features here. “Feels So Good” is airy, electronic pop that is both enveloping and aloof in its purpose. It’s a cover version of the Tom Aspaul song “Indiana”, produced by new kid on the block MNEK, with its dreamy chord progression and Kylie’s translucent vocals is one of the best things here. Ariel Rechtshaid of HAIM and Sky Ferreira fame ups the ante further on the tense and metallic “If Only”. Vocal samples are slowed down and sped up and disorientate and muddle and the drums pound like a sci-fi “Hounds of Love”. Truly dynamic and modern sounding with Minogue’s coolly enunciated,heartbreaking admission -- ‘if I set you free and you actually came back to me…if only’. The final song in the sex trilogy “Les Sex” is another triumph. Written by the brilliant and underrated female electro star MDNR, it is a music box sweet and then a squelching and whacking camp delight.

Enrique Iglesias, following The Hurts and Neil Tennant before him, is allocated duetting honours on the deceiving ballad “Beautiful”. It’s deceptive because of its highly vocodered vocals and soulless machines suggesting something macabre and narcotic, when it is in fact excruciatingly sentimental and dull; a low point indeed. “Fine” is a handbag house type affair with lyrics suggesting a positive outlook equals a positive life cliché. It’s not the most adventurous song Kylie has ever made and like a lot of the songs here (see also “Million Miles”)  it does a perfunctory job of producing workman-like album tracks. This leaves the one other Sia Furler penned song, the title track, “Kiss Me Once”. Given Sia’s song-writing style which is now becoming recognisable – dots can be joined that connect “Diamonds” to “Perfume” to “Pretty Hurts” – “Kiss Me Once” is unmistakable only as a Kylie song. Lush and dreamy, romantic and multi-coloured, it will be become a favourite for many. Kylie herself sounds re-assuring and warm and the bells and the beats that surround her balance out any concerns of mawkishness. It is a performance and song that could have come from the best of Minogue’s PWL years, the Cathy Dennis sessions of “Fever” or her first album for Deconstruction; a Kylie Minogue song for all seasons, beautifully realised. 

If there is a comparison to be made between this and another of Kylie’s albums then it would be 2007’s “X”, another album that suffered from a long gestation period with many songs being recorded with a myriad of producers and writers and then a patchy final track-listing that lacked cohesion and quality control. Like “X”, “Kiss Me Once” also features some of the best material that Minogue has put her name to but also some of the worse. Only on her best but not most successful album, 2009’s “Aphrodite” (executive producer, the extraordinary Stuart Price) was this problem averted with a collection of expertly judged songs that formed a tight and unified vision of pop superiority. There is always a degree of good will placed at Kylie Minogue’s tiny feet, she appears loved by many in an industry that excels in back biting and a desire for always younger, fresh talent  and a general sense that the UK, her biggest audience, do not want to see her suffer or to fail. ‘Kiss Me Once’ is not going to change that and is a crowd pleasing but uneven effort at maintaining her status as pop’s eternal princess. Her more interesting songs, of which only a couple appear here, have always hinted at a darker and more introspective and experimental Kylie; maybe it’s time now for her to embrace this side and allow us more than just the glimpse that she’s permitted over her 27 year tenure.

Blank ProjectI have a confession. It would be unreasonable and creatively and artistically crippling for her, but I want Neneh Cherry to make another “Buffalo Stance” and one more “Manchild” whilst she’s at it. These two songs, twenty five years old and counting, and her most famous along with Youssou N’Dour’s “Seven Seconds”, are as fantastic examples of perfect r’n’b, hip-hop pop as you will ever hear. Weird, joyous, melancholic and just gloriously sing-along tracks they instantly established Cherry as an artist that represented the period so completely that she has never been forgotten and as a female performer who embodied supreme self- possession and control over her image and her music. But therein of course lies a real truth in my confession and that it is built on nostalgia, sentimentality probably, and an opportunity to recapture something that probably can’t be and shouldn’t be. And Neneh Cherry has never been an artist to wallow or revisit, not for she the desperate and depressing revival tours and reality TV features so I wonder, when will my one pop wish ever come true?

2012’s “The Cherry Thing” was the last full length album to feature Cherry’s vocals on every track. It was a relatively specialist jazz album, wild and uninhibited but a sideline nonetheless. This, only her fourth album proper, has some of the residue of the itchy, structure-punishing, live feel of that last outing but where that album felt like an ensemble piece, which is what it was, this is all her; front, back and centre. “Blank Project”, a misleading title given its sharp focus, is very much about Neneh Cherry and her life now and the roles that she plays out, old and new. To get back to my confessional wish, there is not another “Buffalo Stance” here; of course there isn’t. There is however, amongst the avant-garde noises and sometimes bare sound stages, some bold and invigorating pop song structures. Surprisingly they are not to be found in the ponderous and strangely characterless duet with Cherry’s super groupie and number one fan Robyn on “Out of the Black” but in a trio of songs that appear in the album’s first half.

Following the reflective and protective “Across The Water”, a gentle and partly-rapped opener set to African percussion and stark patted drums, the title track “Blank Project” establishes Kieran (aka Four Tet) Heden’s production (he’s responsible for the whole album) style and sonic choices. Live drums, drum machines, guitars, pinging jangling ear-flinching percussion and a low frequency, vibrating and rubbery electronic bass that shares equal billing with only Cherry herself for persistence and aggravated attitude.  Along with “Blank Project”, “Naked” and “Weightless” detail addictive/compulsive relationships, making peace with a world and culture that resists being grounded in anything other than the present and feelings of being overwhelmed by the pressure to carry on ‘as normal’.

‘Strip me naked and put me down right

Strips me naked, my wings need to blast off

Life is going faster, like a bus it runs me over

No kind of beacon, fill me up and make me whole now’

All of these songs have a rambunctious punk energy which link in with Cherry’s earlier time with Rip, Rig and Panic but also, like her best work, they have fantastic melodies and exuberant, big choruses. “Weightless” in particular has a massive charge swinging around a chorus that lists bad dancing, over-spending, hasty decisions and a desire for some kind of spiritual balance. Any of these songs could be performed by artists that are half the age of Cherry and who represent the more interesting end of r’n’b and dance hybrids such as Angel Haze, MIA, Sky Ferreira and even Lorde, which is testament not only to the influence that Cherry has had on modern music but also her refusal to conform to perceived notions of appropriateness.

Spit Three Times”, a mid-tempo track that recalls Cherry’s dalliance with trip-hop around the mid 90’s, and, in particular the track ‘Feel It’, tackles depression but is not in itself a depressing track. Cherry’s warm and clear vocal also sounds suspicious of the superstitions that she thinks may help her dark mood at bay.

‘Monkeys on my back

Holding me down

Black dogs in the corner

Looking up at me

But you’re like an old friend or an enemy; holding me down’

Dossier”, a definite standout track, has a truly sinister build and bipolar mood but ends up revealing nothing scarier than domesticity although maybe this is Cherry’s biggest fear? The one true ballad “422” sees Cherry joining her native Swedes with a glacial, melancholic electronica reminiscent of The Knife and the closing track “Everything”, which may be overlong at nearly eight minutes, is the most experimental track here calling to mind Yoko Ono, albeit at her most subdued. All of it though hanging together beautifully with a graceful and consistent temperament.

Neneh Cherry has always been more of a commentator than a player. Her views have come from her own perspective and experiences as a woman, a woman of colour, a hip-hop star, a pop star, a parent and a reluctant participant of the music industry. To use an overused and often incorrectly-applied phrase she is what you might call authentic. “Blank Project” feels like a concentrated version of Cherry in that she is so present throughout and her strength and vulnerability heightened. It’s as if you’ve spent the morning with her sharing pots of coffee whilst trying to disentangle problems and laughing hysterically at pretty much nothing together, and she’s just left. She’s still live in your head but she’s no longer present, such is the personal nature and intensity of these songs. I won’t deny that I would love to hear her produced by Pharrell or the new Beyonce whizz kid Boots just to hear what they would come up with; I think it would be amazing. But that’s not to belittle or underestimate the quality of this record. Neneh Cherry is back and her art and soul informs this project, blank only for you to fill the role of listener and to share the very human experiences expressed honestly, courageously, and often thrillingly throughout.

BangerzAt some point over the last six months Miley Cyrus has stared the current state of Pop Culture directly in its confused and salacious eye and declared ‘it’s on!’  The combination of a short haircut (I know), high cut leotards (I know!), two very good songs, twerking and the most attention hungry VMA performance in years has managed to create the same impact, the same level of horror and disgust as Madonna did when she first rolled around an empty stage in a wedding dress singing “Like A Virgin”, also at the VMAs, in 1984. Both artists understand the rules and both appear to break many when really they know exactly how much they can get away with. Star power remains as such only when the connection is fully made and maintained and right now Miley Cyrus wants your attention all the time; “Bangerz” will go a long way in determining whether she gets it or not.

As it often the case with these kinds of post-Disney reinventions, Miley Cyrus’ juggernaut of an album (to the Cyrus uninitiated it may seem as though this is her debut when in fact it’s her third album) is steered by the r’n’b producers and song writers du jour, in this instance relative newcomer Mike Will Made It and the evergreen Pharrell Williams. In the case of Williams it features some of his most engaging work in a long time and MWMI shows a diversity to his sound not yet demonstrated on such a vast level. Importantly they understand how to push and develop the pop component and therefore, in this instance, the artist. The surprise for many will be Miley Cyrus herself, the overbearing sound of controversy (Sinead O’ Connor is on her fifth ‘open letter’ to Cyrus at the time of writing, maybe the next should be sealed) having the negative effect, along with several positives of course, of making her hard to hear. Cyrus can really sing, passionately and with humour and drama when required or she feels like it; she is extremely present throughout; something that artists such as Britney Spears or Rihanna can still struggle with.

The first half of the deceptively named “Bangerz” (it’s a fifty-fifty ballad and up-tempo split) is not the strongest. The two massive singles which both feature early on certainly stand out; the opposing ends of the Cyrus vehicle, they are two of this year’s best. Opening the album with a ballad, the “Ray of Light” drum machine skittering “Adore You” is brave but its bland fawning won’t pull you in. The Salt n Pepa-indebted title track featuring a creamy sounding Britney Spears and the twangy, doesy-doe of “4x4” (containing the bizarre lyric ‘driving so fast about to piss on myself’, one of many very odd moments) are both gimmicky and therefore disposable. Unlike the fantastic “Hollaback Girl” (Gwen Stefani) from which this genre was partly born, both songs have forgotten to include a decent chorus. “My Darling” is a mawkish mess and an, albeit imaginative, attempt to uptake Ben E Kings “Stand By Me”.

“#GETITRIGHT” just about sums up the remainder of “Bangerz”. A joyous and naive, guitar-led groove which captures what Madonna was aiming for when she worked with Pharrell but failed to achieve on her flat attempt at urban pop, “Hard Candy”. Williams here produces one of the very best, if not the most triumphant track, on the album with Cyrus sounding ecstatic and utterly contagious. “Drive” is an appropriately named juddering and in turn undulating, excellent metallic ballad. The melancholic drop at the end of the lyric ‘drive my heart into the night, you can drop the keys off in the morning’ hits hard, twerking it seems only being part of Miley’s increasingly sad story. “FU” is another deranged, “I Put A Spell On You”- riffing and swinging show tune underscored by a whomp, whomp dubstep and “Do My Thang” is “We Can’t Stop”’s trappier and more bratty cousin; ‘I’m a southern belle, crazier than hell’. Indeed.

The two tracks which end “Bangerz” are interesting in that they are ballads which I imagine could have appeared on Cyrus’ earlier releases before her ultimate rebirth, the only songs here that this may apply to. I haven’t heard any of Miley Cyrus’ material from this time as I don’t feel that it’s necessary (and I don’t think I would enjoy it) but there is a strong, country feel to them and this is after all a strong part of Cyrus’ heritage (god-daughter of Dolly Parton and daughter of “Achy-Breaky” father Billy Ray and all). “Maybe You’re Right” is more traditional in sound and song structure where “Someone Else” is an insane rave ballad with speed -sung verses and staccato stabs of vocal puncturing the chorus,  It fades on a repeated, whooshing synth noise and the album ends; it is satisfyingly odd.

There are probably two more number one songs here to follow on from the two already achieved before the album was released and means that in 2013 Miley Cyrus is a phenomenon. She can follow in the footsteps of Britney, Beyonce, Gaga and, lest we forget, Madonna. All of those artists understand and luxuriate in artifice and have perfected the other art of being worshipped. They also share a seemingly innate understanding of what constitutes the right song and how to fully inhabit it.  Right now at least, Miley Cyrus has also synced into their groove and “Bangerz” is the highly enjoyable but flawed soundtrack that will accompany her to the next instalment. Whether it will be as engrossing as this one, who knows so I would suggest that you begin to listen and start to fall in love with her, at least for now.

Body MusicAlunaGeorge have already achieved an incredible amount in a very short space of a time. It’s less than a year since their first official single, the haunting and  sonically ever shifting “Your Drums, Your Love” (also the best thing here) and London-based Aluna Francis (vocals) and George Reid (production) have already created a ‘sound’  that is instantly identifiable as theirs. In that respect they are more on a par with the R’n’B super producers of the late nineties/early noughties who were less successful with their own projects (see in particular the early solo albums of Timbaland and Pharrell Williams with N.E.R.D.) but had a sound that was undeniably theirs and hugely desirable to other artists, mainly because it sold by the cartload and it also provided some cool when it was urgently required (Britney, Justin and any other Mouseketeer I may have missed out). It’s the other way around with AlunaGeorge and their success is with their own band rather than work with other artists, at least for now ; unsurprisingly the remix requests already appear to be coming in thick and fast (listen to their work with US hipster idols Dirty Projectors on “The Socialites”).

The AlunaGeorge sound is maybe best described as fluid and ‘watery’ (even lyrically ‘I’m treading water for your’ on “Your Drums”, “Diver”), adjectives like shimmering, skimming and plopping immediately come to mind and this is combined with a harder, more disjointed sound of pitched cut-ups of Francis’ voice or an isolated synth line with the genre firmly established as r’n’b and highly polished, late nineties British two-step and garage. In addition to this, with the most successful example being the fantastically snarling “Attracting Flies”,  there are out and out pop songs where Aluna sounds like an urban Lily Allen (Allen not actually being urban, but don’t tell her that). Aluna Francis’ voice is what’s best described as youthful. She can at times bring to mind a slinky Aaliyah, see in particular the excellent slowie “Friends To Lovers” which is the most mid-90’s indebted  American R’n’B track here ( I won’t mention the Montell Jordan cover version of “This is How We Do It”, quality control alert!), but on the poppier tracks it’s high-pitched and pushy. It’s not a live voice necessarily but it’s a very engaging and charismatic studio one.

Tracks like “Diver”, one of the half-dozen tracks heard prior to the album’s release, use the cut-up, sped-up and disconcerting vocal effects to create an additional hook and mood (their best tracks are all about creating a mood) that is equal to the strong melodies already contained within the song. This is undoubtedly their strength but is also where “Body Music” on occasion sags with the misuse of this formula. If the song-writing fails, as it does on occasion, then it seems the more manic and overwhelming these effects become as if to make up for, or distract from, the lack of a conventional tune. A case in point being the whizzing, stutter splutter of “Best Be Believing” which struggles in vain to locate a noticeable chorus and the lethargic but intermittently hyper title track. “You Know You Like It”, the oldest song here, pumps and throttles away for four minutes, however, and is an astounding track that production-wise you would have been pushed to find in the UK even five years ago. This is changing now of course with the likes of Rudimental and Disclosure (complete with a high profile feature from AlunaGeorge) also releasing high quality but uneven, bass and garage debut albums this year but they can’t yet compete with AlunaGeorge’s sonic niche.

There’s no doubt that half of this album is brilliant and it’s most certainly the first half. The concern for AlunaGeorge will be where to go now with their sound. The weaker tracks here are the newer ones, and if like me you’re listening to the deluxe version of “Body Music” which has 19 songs, no remixes, you will be familiar with the concept of repetition of a successful formula to the point where you’ve nodded off. There is talent here and originality, not easy things to come by at any period in contemporary music regardless of what some may tell you. If AlunaGeorge can continue to make music that keeps them interested, music they would listen to, then this is a duo could become one of the most influential and important acts the UK R’n’B scene has experienced for a long time, in the meantime this will do nicely.

I think this is a first for the Riot Squad.  I probably shouldn’t be surprised that two of our contributors wanted to review this album.  Instead of choosing one or the other, we thought it would be great to publish both reviews.  They come at the subject from different directions and experiences but the conclusions are… well you can read that for yourself.

 

 

Daft Punk are an act with nothing to prove. Given the amount of work that’s gone into “Random Access Memories” it’s easy to think otherwise but when you consider how the world fell at their feet upon the announcement of the album and the success its pre-release single, “Get Lucky”, achieved it’s fair to say it’s become clear that they’ve earned their place in the sub-consciousness of today’s pop world. Everything surrounding this new album almost allows it, in some people’s minds, to transcend the notion that the new release can be considered simply that: an album, which after all is all we’ve received here. Many bands whose status grows to the heights of an act like Daft Punk’s feel the need to use a new release to reignite the world’s passion for them, they craft a new statement defining their existence and remind everyone why they’re even here to begin with but here that’s not the case. With “Random Access Memories”, Daft Punk are simply paying tribute to the music that inspired them and the world and reminding people why we love it so. This album’s not about them, it’s about something much bigger and that’s nice.

This is most clear on the third track, “Giorgio by Moroder”, featuring a monologue from the almost-synonymous producer detailing his early music career. It begins as less of a piece of music, more a vocalised autobiography punctuated by a backing instrumental, however it evolves into a huge-sounding clash of Daft Punk’s usual electro-house sounds and a live orchestra, featuring  rather explosive drumming. This song is where Daft Punk’s motive behind the creation of this album is most prevalent and obvious and is actually very exciting. It’s one of the moments where it feels like the duo truly deserve the status they’ve garnered over the years, at once displaying their skills at creating both futuristic and boundary-pushing musical landscapes and producing something an listener can relate to and enjoy. However these moments are actually few and far between. That’s not to say the rest of the album is bad by any means, although there is a lot of filler, just that much of it seems dwarfed by the ambition and scale of some tracks.

For example when you consider “Touch”, a sprawling eight-minute epic featuring Paul Williams on vocals which seems to try and explore all kinds of musical styles, including both the sounds of music halls from the 40s and string-laden power ballads, and compare it with something as simple as “The Game of Love”, a smooth, funky, soulful, robot-voiced jam that Daft Punk fans will be very used to by now, it feels like a lot more care and thought has gone into the tracks featuring the rather impressive list of collaborators.  The duo’s solo tracks suffer and pale in comparison, feeling like bridges over the gaps between collaborations. Often it seems like extraordinary measures have been made just to distinguish them, like the bizarre Disney-esque fanfare pinned to the start of “Beyond”.

However it is these collaborations which save the record so the focus they’ve received is understandable (or perhaps the converse is true). Personal highlights include the irresistible Julian Calasblancas-featuring “Instant Crush”. His vocals are run through pitch-shift software which makes him sound like a falsetto version of one of Daft Punk’s own robot voices. The catchy, rhythmic runs in the chorus are nearly the most memorable moment on the album. “Doin’ It Right”, featuring Panda Bear from Animal Collective, is by far the simplest track here and is gorgeous. It is literally just AnCo vs. Daft Punk with the collaborator singing over a spine-tingling ascending robot vocal loop with very little else interfering. Nile Rodgers’ presence is made very clear, with his signature staccato guitar licks gliding infectiously over three tracks, including of course the full album version of the previously heard “Get Lucky” which now flows properly and feels fully formed in its extended album version.

The most consistent thing on “Random Access Memories” is the meticulous production values, ensuring that every track at least sounds meaningful and organic. Every instrument is crisp and warm, with overall soundscapes feeling very spacious yet united. Daft Punk often seem to try and recall the sound of seventies disco, free it up, give it a cleaner quality with more room to breathe and mix it up with their own unique feel, all the while pushing everything in a new direction. It’s a very sincere venture and elements which feel borrowed rarely seem to act as a crutch.

“Random Access Memories” is a pleasing but flawed album. When you strip away the notions of this release acting as a movement or an event and look at what is displayed front to back on a disc, what’s here is largely enjoyable; not consistently but the highs remind us why Daft Punk are now so highly-revered. While nothing is as instant or probably as memorable as hits of old like “One More Time”, several tracks here do deserve to be remembered and the overall product is very warm, it’s just that the duo’s sights seem to get distracted along the way. If you go in listening to this as you would any old album then there’s enjoyment to be had to a degree. If you fancy believing the promises made that this is the new best album ever, please calm down.

Louie Anderson (3 stars)

The best thing to do with an album is just listen to it; I’ve been doing this for 35 years now and can testify to its effectiveness. In the small, market town that I grew up in, I visited the tiny, local independent record shop almost every day for at least 2 months after school and Saturday mornings, waiting for Grace Jones’ “Nightclubbing” album to appear. The 2 staff, sick to the back teeth of seeing me , weren’t exactly sure when it was going to be released; it didn’t seem to be confirmed anywhere and then one day, there it was, this mysterious, magical disc. No inner sleeve notes, no guest producers or artists, no media assault and no idea how it would sound. I almost certainly ran home and then consumed every second of this amazing record, it helped me deal with the problems of being an outsider and influenced me in ways that I certainly didn’t understand then. It has since become an album that is considered a classic, a glimpse into the future which still doesn’t sound dated now and the house band of Sly and Robbie and the late Alex Sadkin (collectively known as the Compass Point All Stars), the ultimate in session musicians, are now stars in their own right. I can’t imagine what it would like if this album were to be released today.  The hype that would be attached to it would probably break the internet.

I’ve been listening to Daft Punk’s fourth album proper, ”Random Access Memories”, on and off during the last week; on headphones, on my stereo at home, on my iPad. I’ve heard it in some of the few remaining record shops in central London and in a couple of bars, blaring out. It is without doubt an album that is ambitious, outrageous and gorgeous sounding, but try if you can to turn down the noise of the hype, the incredible marketing campaign which still hasn’t given us a full video for one song but has turned this album, by a band who were merely popular before but now appear to be reinvented as ‘iconic’, into a full blown event.  It’s even been claimed that these two French men who are never seen without their robot heads, have rescued dance music from something; I’m not sure what exactly. This is all of course quite amazing, but what is it you can actually hear? You just need to try and listen.

Nile Rodgers is one of the two men, the other being the late Bernard Edwards, responsible for The Chic Organisiation, words that my still make my heart beat a little bit faster when I see them. Chic made their own intelligent, beautiful and sometimes euphoric, sometimes sad dance records and Rodgers and Edwards, along with their own session band and singers, went on to produce other artists such as Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, David Bowie and Deborah Harry.  Rodgers plays guitar on this album, most predominantly on the first track released from the album, “Get Lucky” and this song has really struck a chord with music buyers such is its immediate, enormous success; with Pharrell Williams’ falsetto,  it has a strong melody line and its lyrical optimism is welcomed in what is globally, a pretty bleak time. Compared to the Chic canon of hits how would this one measure up? Well, it’s not “Good Times”, “Le Freak” or “I Want Your Love”.  Lyrically, structurally and rhythmically “Get Lucky” would be a minor Chic record, more reminiscent of their 80’s work where a looser, less urgent and less staccato sound came to the fore and their success began to wane. “Lose Yourself To Dance” is not “Lost in Music;, Rodgers’ guitar, when it appears after the false start, is still so beautiful and so fluid but the song plods and is a good example of repetition not working although it can be a key component to some great dance music. Maybe I shouldn’t be drawing parallels between these two songs to Chic compositions but surely that’s what Daft Punk have tried to recreate here? Harking back to a time where music, dance music in particular, was more organic, soulful and, somewhat ironically for two men who have never been seen without their robot helmets glued to their heads, human. It would be their own fault if comparisons are made.

I Feel Love” is not a song, it’s a place which Giorgio Moroder, record producer extraordinaire, and disco goddess and his most accomplished muse, Donna Summer, built together in 1977, took residence in  and have never left; people still get lost in it and will continue to. Play it now and it still sounds like it’s from the future; its other-worldliness and beauty intact. Moroder himself explains how he came to make music on the second most audacious track here called “Giorgio by Moroder” and it’s one of the few tracks where, like “I Feel Love”, something happens in your brain which makes it respond to what it can hear in a very visceral way, a physical urge to react, with the last third of this nine minute opus in particular being a complete oral riot and making me grin like a crazy fool. An amazing bass line, synth hook, scratching effects, strings, live drums and an energy that is not matched again here and, despite the structure of the song, which is more like a suite and is very in keeping with Moroder’s more ambitious work (the original sixteen minute version of “McArthur Park”), this still sounds like a Daft Punk record, the aims of this album being very much achieved here.

“Touch” is a silly, show-off mess of a show tune, not a good show tune but a pretentious, overblown, rock-opera cheesy one made up of four different parts playing over eight minutes. The most divisive track on “RAM”, it has a full orchestra and a choir and is the only time you will hear a female voice albeit one blended with other vocals during the album’s seventy-five minute running time. This is one of the main flaws regarding the decisions made by Daft Punk in their choice of collaborators.  Here’s the list in full; Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers, Paul Williams, Giorgio Moroder, Chilly Gonzales, DJ Falcon, Todd Edwards, Panda Bear and Julian Casablancas from The Strokes. A complete boys club then and it’s an odd decision to exclude any kind of female presence when the genre which is being honoured, or being paid tribute to here, was one where the female vocalist was key, a generation of women who had almost dysfunctional levels of intimacy with the producer and who went on to record seminal pieces of work.  No sign of that here though but Pharrell Williams, to his credit, has already, quite rightly, put Madonna’s name forward.

There are four, maybe five, tracks which have the trademark, sad robot vocoder sound or are completely instrumental.  They noodle and doodle around a bit, electronic keyboards and soft rock guitar, quite beautifully arranged and played but seem created to fulfil the cliché of music made for the background, something that their previous output could not be accused of.  Julian Casablancas’ very heavily treated vocals probably get the best actual song on here with the sombre, minor key “Instant Crush” and the minimal, electro jolt of “Doing It Right” with a  bright, white Panda Bear vocal recalls a lesser “Digital Love”. The choppy  chords on the opening track, “Give Life Back to Music Again”, again featuring Rodgers and his magic guitar, bring back memories of and sound a lot like Oliver Cheatham’s “Get Down It’s Saturday Night”, nice but hardly inspired or original.

I have had a long term love affair with Daft Punk’s 2001 album, “Discovery”. It samples Barry Manilow (an early clue maybe?) and features at least four incredible songs which will contribute in helping to define a decade in music and culture generally. “RAM” announced itself loudly and long before its actual arrival and now it’s here it feels underwhelming and is nostalgic, clinical, and occasionally brilliant and will be a musical trainspotter of a certain age’s treasure trove. I’ve been guilty of indulging that part of me in this review. Giorgio Moroder speaks about his desire of wanting to create the sound of the future  here, something he achieved with little fanfare, a bit like Grace, and this is what “Discovery” sounded like to a lot of people when it appeared some 12 years ago. The fact that it influenced pop (and r’n’b, which ended up becoming the new pop) to the extent that it did is still unbelievable; it sounded so underground, so consigned to a club!  And this album is apparently a reaction to the further progression of commercial dance music labelled EDM (electronic dance music), which Daft Punk vocally dislike but are of course partly, and probably quite a large part, responsible for. Instead of looking to the future though, the duo now seem content to swoon over the past, a decision that will excite many I’m sure but in terms of their own evolution, it’s hard to hear anything that hasn’t been heard many times before. It’s clear though that the ultimate message being conveyed with “RAM” is that by aligning themselves with two of the best, most prolific and important dance producers and writers of our time, Daft Punk  also consider themselves part of that gang too; only time can tell. Ask Giorgio, he’ll tell you.

John Preston (3 stars)