Sometimes you don’t know you have an itch until its scratched. Random Access Memories should be the most important album of the year, but I don’t think its going to be, and that’s a catastrophe for a reeling music industry. (Warning… this is going to be a Grantland length column.)
Last week, my wife was playing a typically vapid terrestrial (I can’t believe I have to say that now) radio station. I was in the room, trying to get my socks out of a drawer. Katy Perry was singing a song I didn’t recognize. When the song ended, the DJ said it was someone called Jessie Jane. I didn’t know who that was. More importantly, even with my ear, I couldn’t tell the two apart. I can’t tell most pop singers apart.
That’s not a slam on Katy Perry, who seems to have a decent voice. But her voice has been processed to the point where it is indistinguishable from anyone else. In fact, that’s pop in general. Lady Gaga has genuine musical talent for instance, but she created a highly artificial studio sound that has dominated popular music for the last five or so years (at least.) Mixing studio wizardry with live instruments creates a combination of limitless imagination and spontaneity. It’s why thirty years later, all the Michael Jackson music that Quincy Jones produced sounds better than anything out there.
Back then, there was a different studio system. There were nomadic session musicians, masters of their instruments who were called in by producers to record for various albums. They were so experienced that they could immediately understand what was wanted from them by sight-reading the music, but so talented, they could improvise or add flourishes when needed.
As the years went by, the studios stopped using session musicians. More and more, producer began to rely on canned, computer-generated music. At its best, there were new textures and sounds to explore. But pop music most got lazier. A computer looped a sound every few beats. Consequently most music is quite dull.
When Daft Punk dropped their single “Get Lucky,” it felt like a seismic shift. I was already waiting for their collaboration with “The Hitmaker” industry legend Nile Rodgers, but I still wasn’t prepared for this song.
It was an expression of sheer joy, impossibly catchy, with great work from Pharrell. But it’s a four chord song, not exactly earth-shattering at its core. But as a guitar player, I heard shades of Jimmy Nolen’s chicken scratch style.
As a rhythm guitar player, when you have to be disciplined and hold the beat down with your playing, then there are things you can do to make the song interesting. Nolen changed the texture of his chord by pressing gently down on the strings and then releasing them faster than he stroked the right hand.
Then I heard, “Lose Yourself to Dance.” Another four chord romp, soulful, catchy, and great guitar and bass work.
Here Rodgers adopted the efficient chord fingering that Jimi Hendrix innovated. Hendrix found a way to have one finger cover more than one note, leaving one or two fingers free all the time. “Lose Yourself to Dance” could have been a straight A#m, G#, F# A#m song, but because Rodgers has extra fingers free, he can add notes. From the A#m chord alone, he jumps between a C#6, A#m7, A#m9 and an A#m13. That four chord song got a whole lot more interesting. And nobody does it anymore.
“Alicia Keys is the most boring pianist I think I’ve ever heard,” I told my horrified wife.
But all of music is a balance between beauty and discordance, go too far to one extreme and the music is forgettable and bland, too far the other direction and its abrasive. Keys plays the notes as they fall on the keyboard. My wife didn’t understand what I meant.
“Giorgio by Moroder” explains why, in a way I couldn’t. For all the people subjected to Keys high school practice arpeggios, Daft Punk works them properly going back to the mid-seventies, in what feels like vintage Goblin doing an alternate theme for Scarface. And then it slips into lounge jazz and finally into rock. It would have been noteworthy if Random Access Memories had simply stuck to a sort of funky pop sound but they didn’t. There are strains of chillwave, cabaret, rock opera, and God knows what else.
Random Access Memories runs thorough one style after another, but it doesn’t ape them. It is at once fresh and calculated. I would like nothing more than for this to open people’s eye and make them step their game. But I don’t know if that will happen.
It is a testament that I actually went to the store and bought it the day it came out. I never buy albums anymore. But I don’t think this is going to be a hit. I don’t think its going to appeal to the average person.
For now, just enjoy a great record, for once. And maybe we can hope.