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Primer: Daft Punk

September 9, 2009

Daft Punk Photo

Primer is a fantastic film about the interpersonal consequences of time travel. SSSB’s Primer feature is intended to take you “back in time” and prime you with background and commentary on a cultural phenomenon.

Daft Punk is, I believe, one of the greatest music duos of the twenty-first century. While they are immensely popular, they’re almost criminally neglected in the “mainstream” of the music industry. It’s easy to lump them into the “techno” bucket and ignore or indulge based on your proclivities with that genre. Daft Punk are masters of recontextualization; they take dried-up old snippets of music and make them monoliths of pop perfection. But where to start?

Daft Punk is a French electronic music duo. People who concern themselves with genre labels will say they’re French House or Filter House or French Touch.  Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have released three full-length albums, two live albums, a remix compilation, a greatest hits album, a music video compilation, an animated movie, and a film since forming in 1996. They have ties to French bands Phoenix and Justice (who, some argue, stole their sound from Daft Punk). They prefer not to have their pictures taken and typically wear their customized, LED-embedded robot helmets with Hedi Slimane-designed leather biker suits.

There are two obvious points of entry to Daft Punk’s catalog. The first point of entry is one that will not only help you love Daft Punk, but will help you understand electronic dance music (particularly the kind that doesn’t go verse-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus) as a whole.

AROUND THE WORLD

This is one of Daft Punk’s early singles. It’s got a great beat, a catchy bassline, and that robotic vocal hook. If you didn’t guess from the picture up top, Daft Punk has a thing for roboticity. Anyway, the key to this song is actually the video, where director Michel Gondry lays bare the working of the song my synchronizing a group of dancers with each part of the song. Granted, the song is repetitive, but it’s also constantly evolving, as is the dance of the various players in the video. If this video doesn’t hook you on Daft Punk, it’s okay. You probably need to watch it again.

The second introduction into the world of Daft Punk is the first four songs of their second album, Discovery.

These first four songs (One More Time, Aerodynamic, Digital Love, Harder Better Faster Stronger) are the cornerstone of electronic pop in the twenty-first century. They’ve influenced a huge amount of the music you’ll hear on the radio, proving that music can be danceable, electronic and impossibly catchy all at the same time. Also, witness the early introduction of what eventually became the auto-tune obsession in pop music. These songs fit perfectly on any dance floor. Your mom can appreciate the vestiges of disco, your older brother can remember dancing to New Order, and your little sister can just not get that beat and that hook out of her head. And that’s only One More Time.

Aerodynamic is included if for no other reason to showcase the greatest rock guitar solo in an electronic dance song ever. Behind the barely-there robot guitar chant of the song title, this song is a solid funk track. And then comes that modulated, filtered and still killer guitar solo. As one Steve Jobs would say, boom. (And then and then there is a baroque breakdown out of Wendy Carlos’ so retro-futuristic Tron soundtrack. Speaking of which, Daft Punk has been drafted to provide the soundtrack to the Tron sequel coming out next year. It’s both a sign that the producers know what they’re doing and that Daft Punk are the preeminent electronic music producers of the age.)

Digital Love is pure pop music. Easily singalongable with the verse-chorus structure and an undeniably catchy chorus, this song trades in smiles and fun times. Any two-people-fall-in-love film montage would be made better with this song on top. Musically, it has more in common with early Elton John than any single from a musician with “DJ” in their name. And, wow, another hott guitar solo!

Harder Better Faster Stronger is the pinnacle of this song-cycle. It’s Daft Punk’s signature song–the one Kanye sampled, and the one it seems like everyone has heard. It’s a great song, and addictive to listen to. But let me give you the straight poop on this song: It features a sample so prominent that you might feel like Daft Punk is ripping you off. (listen to Edwin Birdsong’s Cola Bottle Baby on lala.com) Okay, let’s look at this for a second. Clearly Daft Punk use this sample pretty heavily. They paid Edwin Birdsong for the use of his song, so no harm there. But, did you listen to Cola Bottle Baby? Did you get bored after a couple of minutes? Here is where Daft Punk showcase their talents. They lifted a sample so significantly it’s like they cut their song out of the whole cloth. But Harder Better Faster Stronger is so much catchier and enjoyable than Cola Bottle Baby that it’s mind-boggling. Where Cola Bottle Baby drags, HBFS is propulsive. Where Cola Bottle Baby repeats, Harder Better Faster Stronger switches it up, including with (another!) guitar solo, this time hidden inside of the vocals. There’s a reason Harder Better Faster Stronger is an internationally well-known hit and Cola Bottle Baby is a musical footnote.

The rest of this album is Daft Punk at their best. They touch on several genres, from early hip-hop style electro-funk to smooth R&B to even more straight up disco (the album is called Disco-very). The Barry Manilow-sampling Superheroes is a great throwback to their first album, Homework (which they recorded in High School), which I recommend you check out after enjoying Discovery.

After reveling in the stellar, addictive grooves from Homework (standouts are the aforementioned Around the World and killer jam Da Funk). Try out Human After All, though it was their least critically-successful album, it ended up growing on me (and a lot of people). Start with Robot Rock, which takes all the touchstones from Harder Better Faster Stronger (prominent sample, repetitive robot-voiced hook, guitars) and pushes them to 11. Human After All can be grating at times, but there is enough good there to get to know the album.

The pinnacle of Daft Punk listening, however, is their most recent live album, Alive 2007. Unlike a lot of electronic music producers, who, for a live show, simply push play and pantomime on their turntables, Daft Punk actually controls all of the individual elements of their songs live. They also have a tendency to mash-up elements from multiple songs rather than play single tracks. Looking at the Alive 2007 tracklist is enough to convince you that it will sound very little like one of their cds. So, if you want to solidify your Daft Punk fandom, jump into the live album. Start with the Around the World/Harder Better Faster Stronger track (that’s right, two great tastes, taste great together) if you need convincing and only have 5 minutes.

Daft Punk are the past and the future of music. They have probably either been influenced by or influenced some of your favorite music. You owe it to yourself and to the future to check them out.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 15, 2009 9:55 pm

    http://www.dothedaft.com/

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