Daft Punk: Masked Marauders
Homework , Daft Punk’s first album from 1997, pretty much introduced the French disco craze to the American house scene and solidified its prevalence in Europe. But more importantly, it was an attack on largeness and bombast in all its forms.
Recorded on a four-track recorder more or less in the bedrooms of the group’s two members, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, the record was pieced together from all sorts of musical odds and ends–but, most significantly, from a bricolage of childhood musical memories. As a number of contemporary acts have demonstrated (Air and Cassius among them), this is the French way: tweaking the melodramatic sounds of the recent past–Barry White, Elton John, ABBA–so that the listener can both laugh at their sentimentality and long for the time they evoke. It’s a tightrope walk between real appreciation and evisceration.
Plus, it has a beat and you can dance to it. Homework ‘s rhythms were brilliantly, intentionally dumb, and Daft Punk’s tongues were lodged pretty firmly in their cheeks. Homework didn’t so much demonstrate that small is beautiful as it showed that huge can be exceedingly ugly. All accomplished for not much more than the cost of the electricity.
Four years later, everything about Daft Punk’s latest album, Discovery (Virgin), is pumped up. It’s one of those fascinating transitional records that shows the beautiful, pulsing pupa shortly before a horrible dragon erupts from its paper-thin walls.
Like Homework , Discovery is mostly brilliant and more than occasionally tedious (not unlike a night out dancing). It’s stacked with flotsam, jetsam and small parodic gestures that have been synthesized into gigantic, unforgettably catchy anthems. The track “Aerodynamic” rocks out like Yngwie Malmsteen on a toy guitar, while “Superheroes” is apparently constructed around a cartoon sample.
Then there’s the single, “One More Time.” It has already conquered Europe and is showing a similar trajectory here. The song has already hit No. 1 on the Billboard Dance Chart and begun its crawl up the pop list. On first listen the song sounds monotonous and typical, with little internal development. But repeated listenings show the track to be full of brilliant, hard-to-explain details that reveal themselves incrementally: the ridiculous length of the song’s middle breakdown; the weird, inappropriately timed vocoder grunts by the vocalist Romanthony (who’s not French, but is from New Jersey). Also worth catching is the distended narrative of the video for the song, which turns the chipper Speed Racer animé attitude of rave culture into an almost sinister William Bennett-ish caution against pleasure seeking (I won’t give it away; see it for yourself when it premieres on MTV2 on March 15).
This remains pretty subversive stuff for a tune now settling in for a run at Long Island pizza parlors. But, like Mr. Bangalter’s gigantic solo Euro-hit (under the name Stardust), “Music Sounds Better With You,” there’s something so honestly over-the-top about it that it can be a little off-putting. There are moments when Discovery has that effect, too–when it threatens to become exactly the kind of music that Daft Punk lives to mock (albeit playfully).
So when does this jab at spectacle become the real thing? Soon enough, I think. Mr. Bangalter and Mr. de Homem-Christo–who rarely show their faces and never appear in their videos–used to pose for photographs wearing pig masks and the like. But as Daft Punk has encountered success, their idiosyncrasies seem to have taken on Lucasian proportions. Recently, the duo has been wearing specially designed, programmable Robocop -like masks that, the press release boasts, involve 1,800 wires per head. Each CD comes with a Daft Punk credit card that is connected to the Web in a way that I’m not going to bother even to begin to explain. There’s a couple of mad, well-meaning geniuses at work here, but they’re about to invent the atom bomb.
Young Fresh Fellows Vs. the Minus 5
Singer-songwriter Scott McCaughey has been the faithful court jester of the Pacific Northwest’s indie-rock scene for nearly two decades. Beginning in 1984, Mr. McCaughey helmed the Seattle-based Young Fresh Fellows through eight albums’ worth of irreverent, 60’s-flavored pop. Sample song titles: “Take My Brain Away,” “I Got My Mojo Working (I Thought You’d Like to Know).”
Following the Y.F.F.’s breakup in 1993, Mr. McCaughey turned his attention to a new project, the Minus 5. Less a band than a conglomeration of notable Seattle-area musicians, including R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and the Posies’ Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, the Minus 5 were also known for their cheek. Sample song title: “Emperor of the Bathroom.”
With two Minus 5 albums under his belt now, Mr. McCaughey has taken an unusual course of action: He has resurrected his old outfit and paired them up with his current band on a two-CD set that devotes a disc to each of the groups. The Young Fresh Fellows disc is called Because We Hate You ; the Minus 5 effort is called Let The War Against Music Begin . (Mammoth Records is the label for both releases.)
Because Mr. McCaughey’s adenoidal voice and fang-sharp songwriting dominate both albums, it’s tempting to look at them as a single Scott McCaughey solo statement. But his decision to play the two groups off each other while he takes the role of steady quarterback is certainly a clever conceit.
Not half as clever as most of the tracks on these two discs, though. In Mr. McCaughey’s world, two principal elements make up the perfect song: 1) music that combines a nostalgic lilt with an exuberant kick, and 2) ridiculous-sounding titles and lyrics. Among the tracks on the two albums: “Ghost Tarts of Stockholm” and “John Barleycorn Must Live” on the Minus 5 disc, and “Mamie Dunn, Employee of the Month” and “The Ballad of Only You & the Can Prevent Forest Fires” on the Young Fresh Fellows album.
“Barky’s Spiritual Store” starts off Because We Hate You with slashing Pete Townsend-style guitars and details about a religious-accessories retailer (“They mail anywhere” is the reassuring refrain). The aforementioned “Ballad of Only You …” closes the album, recounting the saga of a fictional band crippled by early success; one of its members is a Brian Wilson-like figure who “couldn’t see the sandbox for the sea.”
Musically, the Fellows spend most of Because We Hate You either parroting particular bands–early Beatles on “For the Love of a Girl,” late Kinks on “Your Truth, Our Lies”–or sending up pop music’s well-worn conventions. “My Drum Set” begins with a driving surf beat and the lines “My drum set is better than that / My drum set is better than this,” at which point the “Wipe Out” rhythm gives way to a blast of flower-power sitar. “Good Times Rock & Roll,” which seems to be an irony-free take on the Fellows’ 1996 tour supporting the Presidents of the United States of America and Super Deluxe (for which the band briefly reformed), climaxes with a bombastic percussion solo.
Cursed cutesiness threatens the music at moments like these, but in every case Mr. McCaughey’s melodies save the day. Insidiously catchy, occasionally even poignant, nearly all of them sound like something you’ve heard before but just can’t place.
Let The War Against Music Begin features more top-notch melodic craftsmanship, not surprising given the assembled personnel: Messrs. McCaughey, Buck, Stringfellow and Auer are joined by Robyn Hitchcock, High Llamas leader Sean O’Hagan, Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin and Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin.
Still, save for a few exceptional tracks–including “The Rifleman,” a tongue-in-cheek ode to the TV series, and “Got You,” which exudes an E.L.O.-ish ebullience–the Minus 5’s half of this collection is less satisfying. Where the Young Fresh Fellows are edgy and hard-rocking, the Minus 5 are softer and more introspective, which doesn’t always suit the biting lyrical tone.
The number of illustrious participants also tends to rob the music of the sharp focus that distinguishes the Young Fresh Fellows’ disc. When Mr. Stringfellow takes the lead vocal for “A Thousand Years Away,” it simply sounds wrong, as if some various-artists compilation got slapped into the Minus 5 side of the jewel box by mistake.
The two albums’ respective durations tell the story: The Young Fresh Fellows tear through 14 songs in 40 minutes and 56 seconds, while the Minus 5 take a more relaxed saunter through 12 songs in 46 minutes and 34 seconds. According to my calculations, this means that in the war against music, the Young Fresh Fellows beat the Minus 5 by two songs, nearly six minutes and an immeasurable amount of élan. But no matter how you tabulate the results, Scott McCaughey wins.
Danielson Famile: Wholly Holy?
New Jersey’s Danielson Famile (sometimes called Tri-Danielson) is an attractive, albeit unfathomable, young coed group of six singer-musicians who dress in medical scrubs and have dedicated their lives to singing the praises of the Christian God. Led by Daniel Danielson, who tends to vocalize in ecstatic squeaks, the group puts on something of a communal medicine-show revival, as you can see at Cooper-Union on March 15. If you can’t make it, their mid-90’s output, Alpha, Omega and Tell Another Joke at the Ol’ Choppin’ Block , were recently reissued on the Secretly Canadian label. A new disc, Fetch The Compass Kids , is due shortly, and they are also releasing their own shoe, in collaboration with John Fleuvog (the Familevog)–the better to wander the Lord’s pathway.
While the Danielsons have been compared to the pioneering singers of Blue Mountain, the music is a lot closer to a shambling, acoustic-based progressive rock. Didn’t most of the prog bands possess Christian obsessions? At the very least, Greg Lake believed in Father Christmas. But if Emerson, Lake & Palmer were fantasizing about Brain Salad Surgery , the Danielsons are dreaming–not always coherently, but visions are rarely linear–about a vengeful old-school God, not the touchy-feely New Testament version. On “Smooth Death” (as in “It’s gonna be a smooth death/ Take it slow”), Mr. Danielson sings, “Time zillion truth about / what the blood really means / take a bath in the blood / what the blood really means / means / means.”
They also have a song, “Rubbernecker,” that castigates wandering eyes and perhaps those people who slow down to look at car-accident victims, with a sporadic backing chorus of “shame shame shame.” For the Danielsons, the struggle with sin is a constant one. No wonder their songs are so long.
It’s a pleasure to find a pop version of God that isn’t merely an all-powerful drinking buddy, but, of course, not too many of their fans have stick-figure fish on their license-plate holders. So this may be just another youthful in-joke with little connection to reality. This means that, depending upon how you perceive them, the Danielson Famile are either the most arrogant, condescending group currently touring the indie circuit (after Bobby Conn), or they’re a unique and unduplicatable national treasure.
How you feel about them can probably be gauged by how you feel about another musical artist with Daniel in his name: Daniel Johnston, the certifiable, Jesus-obsessed artist who remains one of the most persuasive songwriters and performers around.
Some find Mr. Johnston a joke, but buy his records so they can mock him when they have company over to the house. (Certainly those bumpers that MTV2 has been running of Mr. Johnston talking about The Real World have that let’s-smirk-at-the-weird-guy feel.) Most of his fans, however, find themselves drawn in by his sincerity, even if it is impossible to separate it from his madness. And that, of course, is much of the point.
Both the Danielsons and Mr. Johnston have worked with Kramer, the Jehri-curled smirkmeister who used to lead Bongwater, a group that could take a joke too far–and then take it to lunch. This might suggest that the whole thing is a put-on, but Kramer does tend to adopt weirdoes the way furries do stuffed giraffes. And Steve Albini is manning the boards for the new disc; he’s not exactly Sir Chucklelot. I suggest you go down to Cooper Union and decide for yourself. But don’t snicker too loudly–you could end up burning in Hell.