Give Life Back To Music 12.09.13: Daft Punk - Homework Posted by Sean Comer on 12.09.2013
411's Sean Comer kicks off his personal retrospective of the music of Daft Punk in earnest with their 1997 debut LP Homework!
Daft Punk – Homework
Music plays on mood. Oftentimes, falling in love with a song, album, artist or even an entire genre has as much to do with hearing one song at just such a singularly aligned moment that the listener is uniquely receptive to its distinctive blend of rhythm, melody and, where applicable, lyrics.
That leaves a great deal of appeal that's either lost or found up to subjectivity. That Nickelback song that somebody hears within an irreplaceable, impossible-to-replicate-exactly instant of vulnerability might as well be a serendipitous choir of Canadian angel saviors led to the poor soul's rescue by an ugly-stick-beaten Jesus. It makes no difference that I will always see them as God's punishing plague. It wasn't my moment. It wasn't my revelation to witness.
EDM's appeal – or, as the case may be and often is with others, absolute lack thereof – sometimes lives or dies in the moment and the moment's artist. Though I don't necessarily mean "which artist is popular in that moment," I do take into account that EDM is a many-spendoured and greatly varied thing. Just like any other form of music, there are subgenres within the form whose nuances have their own apropos places. Place the wrong artist's personal style within the wrong setting, and you easily have enough to prejudice somebody against electronic music of any form. Whatever genre detractors might say, Zero 7 can be experienced completely differently amid a mood and setting where Massive Attack or iamamiwhoami or Steve Aoki fits like a hand in a glove.
When French duo Daft Punk unveiled their 1997 full-length album debut Homework in 1997, it was a revelation: EDM could absolutely defy the overbroad generalization that electronic was more than bombarding digital din; it could be infectiously enjoyable with as snappy a melody and as measured musicality as any other form.
Uniquely enough, it also sums up Daft Punk as one of the few acts that I could legitimately listen to and immerse myself in regardless of time, place, mood or incidental activity.
RELEASED: January 20, 1997
Oftentimes, electronic music celebrates the rhythm at the cost of an engaging melody. It can be a bit like listening to beat-boxing or jazz-scatting or even a Joe Satriani album: technically and rhythmically impressive, but rarely with anything that engages you and makes a song resonate remotely memorable. That's melody's role.
Daft Punk, more often than note, get melody. Homework rarely ever falls into droning, overpowering noise or a bombardment of bass and drums that never lets you have a moment to appreciate anything that the song is trying to do.
"Da Funk" was actually the very first Daft Punk I can remember ever hearing. Even then, I of course didn't realize that it was Daft Punk. It was the backing to TV spots for Val Kilmer's 1997 espionage remake The Saint but I remember that it had a dark, coolly modern sleekness that the ads' cherry-picked spy-action clippings wore damn well. It doesn't waste a second digging into a melody with just the right distortion to give it a signature sound, but not so much grinding that it sounds like a primitive ancestor to dubstep.
After one time through the melody to introduce it, that track drops out to steady bass and skittering snare for a few measures before everything coalesces again. That's Daft Punk for you: every song's every part is timed just so throughout its length that you never seem to hear the same statement enough times to tire of it. When something does repeat, the boys change up the flavor just a bit.
Most importantly, there's a sense of structure – an idea that the songs actually go somewhere. The breakdowns between melodies try to take the music off the beaten path just a little bit further each time, even if the melodies tend to come back full-circle.
If there's anything else negative to get out into the open, it's that picking out one or two tracks that are memorable unto themselves presents a challenge. Really, it's just not "that" kind of album.
When I listen to it, it's usually when I'm trying to lose myself in thought. Maybe I'm writing orders for my day job. Maybe I'm writing this column. Perhaps I'm gaming and I just want to tune out a certain repetitive soundtrack. I could even simply be taking a midnight stroll through my Phoenix neighborhood for a second-wind cup of coffee. Whatever the setting, I can listen to this and feel it chipping away at whatever distracts me. At the same time, though, it lets whatever else happens to be on my mind captivate me unimpeded.
That's my chosen flavor of EDM. It isn't something that makes me fidgety or even so much something that makes me want to dance. With a few exceptions, it's a more atmospheric sound. I like darker textures of down-tempo and chillout artists typically, but Daft Punk have a certain brightness and energy about them that I just can't resist.
Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention "Around the World," far and away, their breakout song. It's got a brighter tone and feel that surrounds the duo's signature digitized vocals, but damn if it isn't just engaging as hell. At 7:12, it's perhaps a bit long and it could stand a few more moments when the vocals drop out. However, that's something else that Daft Punk do incredibly well: their songs just never feel that long.
"High Fidelity" has a sort of up-tempo spring in its step that reminds me a bit of what "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" would eventually sound like. It's bright and bouncy, but not yet as memorable as the aforementioned track would be. Again, that's the pitfall of the album for many listeners: it's best listened to as a whole work. Leave certain tracks alone unto themselves, and they can actually grow irritating quickly. "Burnin'" and "Rollin' & Scratchin'" unfortunately demonstrate what happens when Thomas Bangaler and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo get a bit bored and divert into wacky, rhythmic noises.
The album doesn't have an entirely uniform sound, despite reliance on a single tempo. Its first third or so is largely darker, smoother grooves, while the rest of it picks up the pace into a more urgent gear. The last five or six songs divert into weird, repetitive noises and seem to forget everything that made the first half so damned good. That is, until "Funk Ad."
Yep. Exactly what the title implies.
Maybe that's why "Homework" was such an apropos title. As good as the album is – and believe me, taken as a whole, it is one of my favorites – it's also proof that defying the mold sometimes means trial and error. It demands study and a certain willingness to try a few things that don't pan out before piecing together the final product. It's not perfect. It lacks the cohesion buoying Random Access Memories and even the TRON: Legacy OST. It's truly experimental, but it stands out as an effort to inject a feeling of comforting structure to the French house scene.
It wasn't perfect, but it was a promising beginning for two artists that eventually helped change the way I viewed creativity. We have a few albums to go before we get to my two favorites. But hey, the journey's half the fun around here.
Stay shiny, kids. Never dull your colors for someone else's canvas.