Friday, September 19, 2008

Albums You Should Own, Part the First

For a while now I've had an idea for a periodic feature where I would spotlight albums that I love that have been, I feel, either unfairly maligned, critically overlooked or just plain forgotten. There are many, many albums that could fit in that category, and since the audience of this blog has been proven time and again to possess pretty diverse tastes in entertainment, I figured it might not be without some interest for regular readers.

What better way to begin this discussion than with a few words in support of that most unjustly dismissed third Daft Punk CD? No less an authority on electronic music than Kevin Church recently referred to Human After All as "close-to-unlistenable". Now, I respect Kevin's knowledge and taste in the field of electronic music, and I believe based on past experience that our ideas of good electronic music matches up pretty closely - but I have to take issue with that assessment. I love Human After All. I think, and this may just be heresy on my part, but I think I may like it more than Discovery.

Now, don't get me wrong, I like Discovery just fine. I will admit that it took me a long time to "get" it. It's not that I was disappointed that they hadn't simply released Homework 2 - I'm always happy to se artists branch out from their comfort zones and try something different. No, I just wasn't feeling the 70s soft-rock / soul / synthpop vibe they were channeling, at least not at first. To this day, even though I've come around, the album is not without problems for me: I like "One More Time" just fine, but I still prefer "Aerodynamite" to "Aerodynamic", and tracks like "Digital Love" and "Something About Us" are still as likely as not to get skipped. But I liked Human After All from the very first listen. It's different, obviously, and it's still nowhere near as good as Homework - if I was speaking in my capacity as a Popmatters writer I'd say that Homework is still a solid 10, whereas I'd rate both Discovery and Human After All as solid 7 or 8, depending on my mood and how recently I'd listened to either.

But there's no question in my mind, at this point, I would prefer to listen to Human After All. It is more interesting to me. I hear something new every time I listen to it, which is just not the case for either of their earlier albums. True, it's slapdash in places, rough, kind of strange at times. But I think that's the point. A good analogy that came to mind was, in a rock vein, what if Radiohead went in to the studio for two weeks, limited themselves to only using the basic guitar / bass / drums / piano setup, and came out with something that sounded like a Replacements record? Sure, it's playing against type, probably playing against their strengths, but you can't tell me you wouldn't be interested.

Human After All reminds me of an Armand Van Helden record, in that it sounds really, really off-the-cuff, to the point of being insultingly simple in places. You've got loops and drums and a lot of repetition. But that simplicity is really effective in places: the title track is basically a simple 20-bar rock loop played over and over again, with a strange digitized voice humming "We are human after all" over and over again on top of it - but if you listen, the vocodered voice is actually changing on every pass, until the noise turns into something far weirder and melodically interesting. It almost sounds as if they're putting the vocoder through Auto-Tune, which is so stupid it's brilliant.

"Prime Time Of Your Life" follows the same vein, with a simple (albeit hard and stomping) beat contrasted against some really far-out melodic improvisation laid on top. The comparison with Lil Wayne is probably apt here as well. Everybody knows Lil Wayne is an incredibly talented MC, but half the time it seems like he's more interested in making weird, bizarre noises and experimenting with patois more than actually, you know, spitting some hardcore rhymes. This is like that: whole sequences of the album seem to be simply fuzzed-out vocoder loops processed until the become something entirely different and practically unrecognizable. Listening to the way these sounds morph and interact, producing unexpected melodies and startling moments of harmonic confluence, you become convinced that no matter how haphazard the album may seem, even the moments of improvisation have been brilliantly conceived.

So, Human After All has many meanings. Many not so generous critics interpreted the title to say that after two stellar releases, the duo had finally crashed and burned, proving themselves less-than-divine in the process. But also, there's the notion of taking their oddly sterile robot fascination one step beyond and trying to return to something more organic, more fraught with imperfection, more, well, human. If Discovery sounded like it could have been manufactured in an Intel clean room, Human After All sounded dirty, off-center and glaringly imperfect. Every track is built around that most human of instruments, the voice, in some capacity. Even the slower, downtempo-ish tracks work better for me than they did on Discovery. "Make Love" is quiet and understated like a Yo La Tengo jam, while "Emotion" is so simple that it verges on downright profound - a robot voice repeating emotion over and over again, rising into a crescendo of digitized harmonics that actually, for a moment, convinces you of the sincerity of Daft Punk's absurd mission statement. These are robots trying desperately to prove their humanity. They succeed, beautifully, and the results - while inarguably uneven - are still pretty awesome to behold.

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