Thursday, November 22, 2007

[Special] Homework, Part 2

As I didn't actually write a "real" entry, and instead went the theme route, for Daft Punk's Homework, it was a pleasant surprise to get this email from my brother Ian, the same who was featured in the original entry, and was the person to inspire the album's inclusion. He's written a brilliant piece that I am now considering an official part of the list; look at it like a guest appearance, my hit duet. Enjoy, and Happy Thanksgiving.

An addendum to Daft Punk's Homework:

In the history of electronic music there have been noticeably few acts to gain any serious recognition. (Seriously, try to name 30 great electronic acts and you will be pulling for straws and including instrumental composers like David Axelrod, or sound collage artists like DJ Shadow, who are inappropriately categorized as electronic). That doesn't mean that electronic, or more generally "dance", music hasn't become ubiquitous, and reached a high standard of quality, in recent years. Its just that the genre is dominated by one hit wonders and complete nobodies - I have personally googled the names of several artists' (who had a great song on a mixtape) only to find no record of their existence outside of the track listing for album on which I found their song. The result is what you find on the shelves of record store dance music sections; thousand of mixtapes, with hardly a familiar name among them; personally I have never known how to choose between them (the names are normally so completely retarded, e.g. Ultra Trans European Free Energy Mix 6). I have relied upon "listening station" previews more for electronic music purchases than for any other genre.

There are a few simple explanations for this phenomenon. First, that the DJ's capture so much of the limelight. Second, and related, that the electronic musician is almost never performing the track live (the dance floor and DJ replace the club and live band). Third, that some artists gravitate towards electronic music in search of success with anonymity (the subject band also being desperate to protect their true identity). The point is, if you were to assemble a list of the top 100 electronic songs of all time (or the last 20 years as the case may be) it would be populated with names who are associated only with that one great song. (This is likely true of other genres as well... but not like this). If you STILL think there isn't much to my point, type "top 100 dance songs on itunes" into google and see how many artist names you associate with a body of work. You will, however, recognize the names of the songs... and probably the fact that you haven't heard of the band since they released it.

I propose an alternative, if not freakish, explanation for this phenomenon; that so many of the greatest electronic songs of all time are accidents. More specifically, so many of the best electronic songs of all time are the result of someone accidentally touching a button, or twisting a knob, and having some unbelievable noise they could never have actually thought of, coming out of their sampler ("Dude, tell me you were recording that... loop it!"). If you think back to the many electronic one hit wonders, you will rediscover so may of these accidents. One catchy loop, one great noise... a blip of brilliance, probably set within a mediocre song... and alas, an act never to be heard from again. Dirty Vegas - "Days Go By", Eiffel 65 - "Blue", Darude - "Sandstorm", Iio - "Rapture", Alice DeeJay - "Do You Think You're Better off Alone", Faithless - "Insomniac"... all chart toppers... all forgotten acts.

Don't get me wrong, there is nothing negative about these kinds of accidents. The thing is that they are very difficult to replicate (intentionally), and so most acts only get one... maybe two if they are lucky.


Daft Punk gained its most early notoriety with a track that, at the time, must have seemed like just another happy accident; not that it stopped people from heading to the dance floor. As legend tells it, "Da Funk" made its way into the Chemical Brothers' (then Dust Brothers) weekly DJ set at The Social in London in 1995 and gave the band its first taste of success. The second half of that legendary track features what I personally regard as the greatest noise ever recorded in the history of electronic music; among those who know the track, reference to "The Sound" is generally sufficient to reach an understanding. Without "The Sound", this might just be a really good song. It would probably make its way onto a lot of mixtapes... and you probably would have never heard of it, or Daft Punk. With its legendary "Sound" looping for the final 3 minutes of the track, however, it is not only great, but one of the most famous electronic songs of all time (you could argue it the best and get respect). I guess the question is whether the sound was just a happy accident? You'd probably think so if you died not knowing what happened next.

The success of "Da Funk", and another early single "Rollin and Scratchin", were sufficient to raise interest and funding for a full length album. In accepting the challenge of doing an LP (which many an electronic artist have turned down, see the wikipedia entry on Daft Punk side project Stardust), Daft Punk was to be put to the test. Was the "sound" a one-time lucky use of a low-pass filter and TB 303 (thats the recipe by the way)... or an intentional grasp for immortality?

Answer: Either Daft Punk was somehow 16 times as lucky as any other band in history (getting 16 legendary happy accidents in a row, without a miss), or they are the greatest electronic band of all time. If you saw their tour this summer you know. Its all intentional. There is no luck here. The only reason some of Homework's more obscure tracks are not thought of as historic blockbusters in their own right is that an album only gets so many singles. If the 5 least of Homework's tracks had been the singles I am confident the album would have achieved nearly comparable success.

"Da Funk", the track which so perfectly encapsulates why this electronic band is superior to all of their competitors, contains all of 10 noises total. Think: The bass, the loop that introduces the song, the rhythmic synth chord, The Sound, and about 5 drum sounds... Thats pretty much the whole recipe. It conjures greatness from this bare nothing... leaving no chance for any sound to be anything less than the perfect sound in that moment.

The rest of Homework, which need not being discussed at length, is similarly capable. Count the number of independent samples in any of Homework's songs and they hardly surpass a dozen. There is hardly any sequencing (verses, chorus) to speak of. No guest stars. Pretty much the same drum sounds (the TR-909) on every song. No song attempt at a real "song" with a vocalist. Hardly any drum breaks. Very few samples (organic sounds they didn't produce) of any significant length. Yet, somehow, when you get to the end of the 6th minute of "Around the World", you are thankful its a 7 minute song.

(Now would be a good time to call that friend who thinks he is gong to produce electronic music with that new $2,000 keyboard... the one with 1256 instruments, 990 drum kits, 87 effects, and built in recording capabilities... And ask him if he knows the greatest band in the history of electronic music used no more than 12 samples per song, and the same drums on all, in their first and greatest album to date).

Re-read the paragraph where I list the things that Homework doesn't include or attempt to do (it begins with "The rest of Homework..."). What is left? What is it? Why can't you make a song that good? Why can't the 1,000's of kids who spend every pay check on new vinyl, and to whom you are losing your edge, make a song this good? You know that the piece of shit $20 dj-electronic music program they sell at Target, or Best Buy?... the one on the same shelf as other forgettable computer crap like "The Sims" and "iPod Doctor"... the one you don't buy because you don't believe learning will allow you to make anything of value...? That piece of shit program is more than capable of producing this album. Said otherwise, Daft Punk is so good that they could have produced this album on that commercialized kiddie techno piece of shit program. And the rest of us keep saving up for that new $2,500 Moog...

I give up. Other than being understood as pure and utter genius, this album defies all logical explanation.

(That this band has proved capable of translating the above referenced simplicity into what is the greatest live act in the world, as of this writing, is further evidence of the phenomenon that is Daft Punk).
[Ian Rasmussen]

Just for Ian, "Da Funk" from the show he attended this past August at Brooklyn's Keyspan Park. I can tell you that having gone to see Ted Leo only a few days later, the aftermath was incredible. It wasn't just overheard conversations and dozens of DP t-shirts, it was Ted Leo slipping "One More Time" into his set. 2007 was Daft Punk's year for sure - "Close Encounters of the Daft Punk Kind. Concerto for Human and Robots in Electro Major."
"Da Funk" [live in Brooklyn, 08.07]

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