This Week in Music, May 21, 2013: Techno trousers shed by Daft Punk

Daft Punk: Random Access Memories

New release (Daft Life/Columbia)
Photo by David Black

In this era of electronic dance music, you might think the pioneering French duo Daft Punk would be eager to trump the upstarts. But you’d be thinking wrong.

As Thomas Bangalter told Rolling Stone, “We wanted to do what we used to do with machines and samplers but with people.” And as Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo said, “It’s not that we can’t make crazy, futuristic-sounding stuff, but we wanted to play with the past.”

They still wear their trademark helmets, but they’ve shed their techno trousers to pay homage to the R&B of the late 1970s and early ’80s. You’ll find only one sample on Random Access Memories, and just two uses of drum machines. Instead, you’ll mainly find actual live musicians, including guitarists Nile Rodgers and Paul Jackson, Jr., bassist Nathan East, and drummers John “J.R.” Robinson and Omar Hakim — people who helped create some of the music that Daft Punk is emulating here.

That said, the album isn’t a high-energy party of Chic “Freak”-outs and Michael Jackson “Beat”-downs. Rather, it’s a mostly understated affair, with nearly every track sharing the same midtempo, mellow groove. This R&B, then, is EZ listening, draped in the West Coast studio sound of Steely Dan. It’s an album that may completely confound Daft Punk’s hardcore fans.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with EZ R&B. Too often, however, the results here are a bit slight. Indeed, tracks like “Within” and “Motherboard” aren’t much more than sonic-mood filler. The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas plays guitar and sings on “Instant Crush” (which he co-wrote), but the simple chord progression makes the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” seem complicated by comparison. “Lose Yourself to Dance” doesn’t summon the delirium that its title seems to promise; both this track and the other one sung (and co-written) by Pharrell Williams are ultimately repetitive. Natural vocals abound on RAM, but so do ones processed through vintage vocoders, and their patterns get a little tired a little too quickly (except for Panda Bear’s duet with a vocoder on his co-write, “Doin’ It Right”).

With a slinky, samey album such as this, you’ve gotta take hold of whatever’s out of the ordinary. So grab onto “Giorgio by Moroder,” where a voiceover interview with the producer/songwriter himself leads to a super-catchy dance move that’s later magnified by the addition of live drums. Then there’s the collaboration with Paul Williams — yes, he of “We’ve Only Just Begun” and Phantom of the Paradise. Now 72 and rehabilitated, he evokes his 1970s range by presiding over the multipart, wonderfully oddball “Touch.” And the last of these Memories is “Contact,” which takes the opening theme from the 1981 song “We Ride Tonight” (by the Australian band Sherbet, when it was known as the Sherbs) and uses it as a springboard for a battle between drums and a custom-built synthesizer, ending the album with a bang.

Daft Punk’s previous work was a soundtrack (for Tron: Legacy), and this could be one, too — for whatever you happen to be doing at the moment. Dancing, maybe. But more like driving, or loading the dishwasher, or changing the cat litter. Which is not to slam it outright but to acknowledge that its ear-friendliness comes across like some of the best background music you’ll ever hear.

Or, in good news for S&V readers (and, um, equipment reviewers), the album can be used another way: as a test disc. In fact, it’s so dexterously produced by the band, recorded by folks including Mick Guzauski, and mastered by Bob Ludwig that it’s ideal for any gear or speakers you might want to throw at it. Praise to all concerned for this particular cease fire in the Loudness Wars.

National Trouble

The National: Trouble Will Find Me

New release (4AD; tour dates)
Photo by Dierdre O’Callaghan

With its downcast lyrics, murmuring vocals, and dreamy instrumentation, Trouble Will Find Me has the potential to be a blur. So credit The National for initially putting the listener off balance with irregular time signatures on the first two songs, “I Should Live in Salt” and “Demons.” From there, things are more straightforward on tracks like “Don’t Swallow the Cap” and “Graceless,” with “Sea of Love” achieving the most majesty.

However, the band’s sound tends to blend everything into one big wash; you wouldn’t even notice that St. Vincent, Sharon Van Etten, Sufjan Stevens, and other guests are here if the credits didn’t tell you. So the best compositions are some of the quiet tunes with a small focus — “Fireproof,” “Heavenfaced,” “I Need My Girl,” “Hard to Find” — as well as “Humiliation,” the track that hovers perfectly between the band’s louder and softer tendencies. Those five songs are the keepers on an airy album that, overall, comes and goes like a mild weather front.

Wilde Pleased

Key Wilde & Mr. Clarke: Pleased to Meet You

New release (Worm Hole/Burnside Distribution; tour dates)
Photo by Thom Lang

“Kid-friendly”? “Family-music album”? Well, certainly. But some legitimate rock bands would kill to be able to write this stuff.

Not that there’s anything illegitimate about Key Wilde & Mr. Clarke. They’re true pros, and Pleased to Meet You stands out in the family market, with 13 original songs that relish in both their word- and music-play. From electric rock to acoustic folk, from reggae to bluegrass, Wilde & Clarke handle vocals and guitars with aplomb. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re accompanied by a team of nimble musicians — chiefly, bassist Ralph Hockens and drummer Brendan Finnegan — or that they’re imaginatively recorded by leading “kindie” (kid + indie) producer Dean Jones (who also has his own band, Dog on Fleas, and a new solo album, When the World Was New).

There are customary topics, including letters (“Animal Alphabet”), numbers (“Take Ten”), and food (“Eggplant Man”). Two covers give fresh takes on the Reverend Gary Davis (“Candyman”) and classic choo-choo tunes (“Railroad Medley”). But Wilde & Clarke also love to go delightfully nuts on tracks like the nature/nurture contemplation of “Raised by Trolls” and the metallic, monstrous “Trondaxx Berserker.”

So, by all means, listen with the youngsters. But when they’re asleep, you have some homework to do, parents: Cue up this album on your sound system and study (and marvel at) how it makes anyone seem young at heart.

McDonald Home

Audra McDonald: Go Back Home

New release (Nonesuch; tour dates)
Photo by Autumn de Wilde

This is the first solo album in 7 years from our Tony-winning treasure, Audra McDonald. The material ranges from Rodgers & Hammerstein (“Edelweiss”) to Kander & Ebb (the title track, from The Scottsboro Boys, and “First You Dream,” from Steel Pier). Other tracks include Stephen Sondheim’s “The Glamorous Life” (A Little Night Music), Adam Guettel’s “Migratory V” (Saturn Returns), and songs inspired by Marlene Dietrich and Edna St. Vincent Millay. McDonald stars in a PBS special this Friday.

Women Brazil

Various Artists: Women of Brazil

New release (Putumayo)

Aline Morales (shown above) is just one of the current singers who are carrying on the rich musical traditions of their country, whether based in pop, samba, or bossa nova. Other artists represented: Nossa Alma Canta, Graca Cunha, Clara Moreno, Flavia Coelho, Maguinha, Luisa Maita, Juliana Kehl, Mart’nalia, Miriam Aida, and Miriam Maria.