The Greatest Electronic Album Ever Made: Homework – Daft Punk Part 4 of 4

This is the final installment in our 4-part review of Daft Punk’s “Homework”.  Be sure to check out Parts 1, 2, and 3 as well!

SIDE D:

13.  Burnin’ – The final side of the album opens with one of Daft Punk’s most frequently overlooked masterpieces.  “Burnin'” is one of those tracks that truly defines DP’s ability to make you listen to try and figure out what exactly these guys were thinking when they literally whipped this one up, all while grooving your butt off.  Whooshing fire truck sirens, alarm bells, and a filtered subtractive synth line all build to a climax before one of the most defining basslines ever heard in house music drops and sends the track into sheer pandemonium.  The drum programming is simply brilliant here, with the lads tapping out what sounds like “Dueling Banjos” for percussion on their drum machines (including some cheeky, slightly out-of-place tom sounds just for fun).  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this tune absolutely destroy in the clubs and based on the response DP received when they added it to the slightly revamped Alive 2007 set list, this one will continue to endure as a fan favourite.

14.  Indo Silver Club– One word:  MADNESS.  This is Daft Punk at their absolute nuttiest; here they grab a snippet of “Hot Shot” by Karen Young (the only credited sample on the album) and set a bendy bassline to auto-insanity and let ‘er rip.  This is an extremely cool track, one that takes a sample so far out of its original context it’s ridiculous and the result is a great late night tune that served as the duos second Soma single, released simply as “Indo Silver Club“.  The single contained “Part 1”, a heavier, rolling, clanky techno cut, and “Part 2″ which appears on the album.  The 12” (of which I have a copy, tee-hee) is one of the tougher DP releases to track down, but well worth it if you’re a diehard fan.

15.  Alive – Many people are surprised to learn that “Da Funk” was not the first single released from Daft Punk.  In 1994, the duo released their debut E.P. on Soma and UMM Records entitled “The New Wave“, containing two versions of the title track, an early techno number, “Assault”, and what appeared on the single as “Alive(New Wave Final Mix)”.  It is this version that is presented on “Homework” and if you listen to the original arrangement of “The New Wave”, the similarities are present, but not quite as polished as the “Final” product.

Let’s not mince words; “Alive” is a monster of a track.  The final mix is slower in tempo and it starts off heavy with some kicks put through a nice doubling reverb and a single-note bassline.  The effects and synth hooks follow with everything building towards a huge climax before kicking in even harder.  It’s perfect 1996 rave music and shows a marked improvement in terms of arrangement over “The New Wave”, which seems to rely a bit too heavily on its faster tempo and somewhat scattered sounding sequencing and engineering.  “Alive” has endured as a consistent fan favourite, included in both their Alive ’97 and Alive 2006/2007 live shows and lending its name to the tours themselves.  The main thing is it sounds fantastic in a club, even better when the boys tear it apart and put it back together, and is the perfect tune to close an amazing debut album from two unassuming kids from France who banged out a masterpiece in one of their bedrooms and changed the course of house music forever.  Right?

16.  Funk Ad –…..Well, kinda.  Let’s face it, from day one Daft Punk has always approached everything they do with slightly cheeky humour.  The masks, the dog in the video for “Da Funk”, not appearing in their videos themselves (at least not until the release of “Human After All“), you get the idea.  Many will argue for and against the merits of closing such a fantastic debut with a 50-second snippet of “Da Funk” played backwards, but who cares what the real reason behind it is.  Maybe it’s a joke, a DJ tool, a subliminal hook that helps ingrain the album into the fabric of your brain (surely I can’t be the only person this has happened to), or just something more to add to an album that was longer than just about any album released during this time period(73:53).  At this point, after listening to the sheer brilliance of the 15 tracks that preceded it, you would almost come to expect something like this from the guys who knocked out “Rollin’ & Scratchin'”, “Oh Yeah”, etc.

CONCLUSION

“Stands the test of time” is an accolade that’s been misused to the point of being mostly meaningless these days.  “Homework”  is a record that accomplished much more than that, but if we choose to focus on the music alone for a minute, there is a definite timelessness to the album that can be observed simply by looking at how well the tracks hold up to this day in 2012.  Seriously, put on “Around the World” and then show me a current “hot” single or song that is anywhere near as funky as this.  Skrillex‘s “Bangarang” is a decent tune, but if “Da Funk” didn’t exist who’s to say it would either?  If you’re a house DJ and you’re gigging this weekend, pull out “Burnin'” and just watch what happens.  Maybe you’ll thank me on Monday.  The quality of every track on here is light years ahead of where the curve was in 1996 and, quite frankly, where it is today.

One of the reasons why the album has endured and received further acclaim in the years after its release may well be because it was, in fact, too far ahead of its time for most people.  Thomas & Guy-Man introduced a novel approach to making electronic music without deviating too far away from the pop sensibilities that made their tracks instant classics.  Remember too, this was an LP designed with the DJ in mind.  This may have worked a little too well, since Virgin even had difficulties in deciding how best to market the album since DJs of various genres were playing every single track out!  The arrangement of the tracks themselves are very DJ-friendly, consisting of full versions instead of radio edits.  Hmmm…the easier it is to mix and play out the tracks, the more people will play them!  No wonder everybody was on Daft Punk in some form when this album dropped.

At the end of the day, the main reason I selected this recording as the Greatest Electronic Album Ever Made is simply because it is one of the few albums of any genre that I can actually listen to all the way through and it is still a pleasure to do so.  It grabbed me by the ears and soul and hasn’t let go since.  Daft Punk simply made people sit up and say “woah….what is this???”  It broke away from the Eurodance sound that was dominating the genre at the time and made people realize that with a little imagination, some half-decent gear and respect for house music’s founding fathers, you can actually do this yourselves.  This record has influenced everything from my DJ sets to how I approach making my own tunes and has most definitely become one of my “deserted island” records.  I haven’t stopped playing this since I got it and have no plans to stop any time soon.

No album is perfect, but for me, this one definitely comes close.  If you want to hear how half a dozen different house sounds and styles got started, do a little Homework and give this one your attention.

Da funk back to da punk, come on!

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The Greatest Electronic Album Ever Made: Homework – Daft Punk Part 3 of 4

Here’s Part 3 of our 4-part review of Daft Punk’s Homework.  Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 as well!

SIDE C:

9.  Teachers – They called the album “Homework”, right?  It only makes sense that Tom & Guy show their teachers proper respect.  In under three minutes, Daft Punk literally shouts out a laundry list of their creative and musical heroes over one of the freshest breakbeats on the entire LP.  This dirty funk-fest sees the boys naming checking everyone from Paul Johnson to Dr. Dre to Brian Wilson to future collaborators Todd Edwards and Romanthony.  It’s a very nice homage to some of Daft Punk’s biggest influences; the extended mix on the b-side of certain European pressings of the 12″ for “Around the World is great to play out if you can find it.

10.  High Fidelity – Compared to its preceding eight tracks, the second “half” of “Homework” is discernibly, well, different.  This one features the duos’ now trademark big kick and some nice perc arrangements but what comes next is truly a great example of just how ahead of its time this record was:

Sampling was certainly nothing new at the time the boys knocked this out in Thomas’ bedroom, but Daft Punk took it one step further, applying a seemingly schizophrenic approach to the cut-and-paste job they did on (never officially confirmed) “Just The Way You Are” by Billy Joel.  No sample is listed in the liner notes, but the glaring sax sample and the snippets of vocals, keys, and record pops do make it seem almost obvious after a few listens and the “chop-job” videos that have appeared on YouTube do come mighty close to what DP did way back in 1996.

The genius here is the fact that they are subtly taking a big chunk of early 80’s hip-hop production techniques which frequently consisted of creating a “sound collage” by using short snippets and snatches of an assortment of (usually uncredited) different recordings and sound.  The bits used here, albeit from one record, do work together to create an often overlooked gem on this album, and a prime example of Daft Punk’s “taking the rules and throwing them right out the window” attitude.

11.  Rock’n Roll – Sounding like the evil twin “Rollin’ & Scratchin'”, this is another monstrous techno cut with harsh, minimalist kicks, jaunty claps, hi-hats and a warping, twisting synth line that dominates with its relentless and repetitive squelch.  Not quite ready for prime time, but definitely a late-night gem especially when combined with a good acapella.  One of the more monotonous tracks on the album, this was clearly aimed at the techno-heads.

12.  Oh YeahDescribed by DP themselves as “a techno track that makes fun of techno tracks”, this one features vocals from DJ Deelat and DJ Crabbe from later Jess & Crabbe fame.  It’s a loud, bleepy, noisy response to all the electronic haters who said that techno music was nothing but loud, bleepy noises.  One of the few DP tracks I’ve ever not played out, the humour is spot on and you’ve got to give the boys credit for mixing it in over “Robot Rock” as part of their Alive 2006/2007 shows.

Well, there’s only Side D left to cover, so keep checking back for the conclusion to our 4-part review!

The Greatest Electronic Album Ever Made: Homework – Daft Punk Part 1 of 4

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a self-professed NERD when it comes to my favourite musical group:  DAFT PUNK.  IMHO, they are it.  What members Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have done, and are continuing to do for not just the house and electronic genres but for media in general, is nothing short of astonishing.  Over the course of their careers, these two unassuming guys from Paris, France have hidden their faces with masks, became robots because their sampler blew up, and finally re-introduced themselves and their music in one of the most entertaining live tours in the past decade.  Their videos are some of the most ground-breaking and entertaining pieces ever aired.  They broke into the movie business, starting first with their own full-length film DAFT PUNK’S ELECTROMA, followed by composing the musical score for 2010’s Tron: Legacy, which was then recorded by an 85-piece symphony orchestra.

All the while, the pair have kept their faces hidden from the world of celebrity and stardom, yet through their music, visuals and the meticulous detail put into every project the duo are involved with, they have created an image not solely based on what the group’s members looked like, but rather on letting their music, videos and live performances alone form the basis of that image.

Homework, the first full-length album from Daft Punk, was the result of great music, slick marketing, a radically different approach to how the group appeared in  photos and interviews, and the fact that the record gave “dance music” the healthy kick in the butt it sorely needed at the time.  “Da Funk” was already a huge underground and commercial hit, with its video receiving heavy rotation on MTV and other shows around the globe.  The B-side of the U.K. 12″, “Rollin’ & Scratchin'” was being hammered at European raves to the point of being overplayed.  The duo had already earned the respect of the industry and their releases through Scottish label Soma Records had been met with great acclaim.  A bidding war to sign them began, with Virgin winning out only because they agreed to the duo’s strict demands:  Daft Punk would hold exclusive rights to all master recordings, licensing the tracks on a deal-by-deal basis to Virgin, and no photographs of the group where their faces were exposed.  Initially put in the contract due the band’s shyness, it ultimately created a mystique about the group and added to the mounting buzz about seeing a full-length LP release from the French duo.

Although Homework is a concept record and also clearly an homage to Chicago acid-house, disco, breakbeat, funk and techno genres, the balance of the tracks, going from blistering, squealing synths to a laid-back, chill-out vibe, make for a listening experience that was at least 10 years ahead of its time and can still hold its own against today’s new-wave of electronic production styles.  To me, they simply got house music right with their debut effort and this is truly an album that inspired a million beginning house producers to get down to it and made house veterans to step up their game in terms of quality and consistently.

I fully expect people to criticize and disagree with my choice of greatest electronic album ever made, and that’s fine.  I’m simply offering my opinion on what I consider the best electronic album I’ve ever heard.  The album will be reviewed over four posts, one for each side of the 2×12″ release (my most revered record in my collection).  So let’s take a track-by track look at a record that came out in 1996 and still sounds as fresh and relevant as ever 16 years later:

SIDE A:

1.  Daftendirekt – “What the hell am I hearing?” is a question that I asked myself shortly after popping the CD into my player.  A very bass-heavy, filtered voice repeating “Da funk back to da punk, come on.”  In came the breakbeats giving the listener a preview of the recognizable drums used in “Da Funk”.  The beats are nice, fat and juicy and this serves as a very concise teaser of what’s to follow throughout the rest of the album.  It’s a great intro, just enough of everything before transitioning directly into…..

2.  WDPK 83.7 – A the time of the album’s release, it was not only “Da Funk” that was getting hammered, but the B-side of the U.S. 12″ single “Musique” got quite a bit of club play as well.  Taking a slightly pitched down sample of the vocal, this quick clip lets us know that this disc is ready for take off.  As if you needed a bigger clue that we’re ready to go, Thomas proudly announces with some heavy distortion, “WDPK 83.7, the sound of tomorrow, the music of today, brings to you exclusively Daft Punk’s Homework!!!”

I often wonder if the boys had any inclination about how prophetic that statement was.

3.  Revolution 909 – Hope you weren’t expecting some electronic ode to the Beatles here.  This track is not only a big “F*** you” to the French authorities who were cracking down on illegal raves throughout the country at the time, but also to any jerk who starts doing that incredibly annoying “Boom-chick, boom-chick, boom-chick…..” imitation of a “typical” house beat when you mention you like house music.  The intro replicates what you might hear if you were in a cop car about to bust an underground party.  The crowd scatters when told “Stop the music and go home.  I repeat, stop the music and go home!”

Let the revolution begin.  Some of the toughest and tightest beats ever coaxed out of a Roland-909 drum machine anchor this tune right to the floor and with an incessant groove that showcases what Daft Punk do best:  they get behind the machines and make tunes that drive the party.  The drums take the forefront here, hence the title and the layers of the groove come in and out throughout the track creating nice breakdowns and in-your-face sequences to keep things interesting.  Still great to play out to this day.

4.  Da Funk – If you were around in the late 90s, you definitely have heard this one.  But what exactly was it?  Hip-hop?  Funk?  Rock?  Techno?  This tune, considered Daft Punk’s breakthrough release, incorporates all of those styles and delivers them in a booming, funky, squelching, vocal-less masterpiece that appealed to rockers, hip-hoppers, house-heads and more.

Not only was this a hugely popular track in the clubs, but the video featured above added a whole new level of interest to not just the tune, but Daft Punk as a whole.  Conceived by acclaimed director Spike Jonze and the duo, the video functions as a mini-movie involving a human/dog named Charles who bumps into an old neighbour/past crush while walking through the streets with his leg in a cast and carrying a boombox playing “Da Funk” at high volume.  Huh?

It may not make sense on paper, but it certainly got people talking about Daft Punk, whom many were convinced was just one guy who wears a dog mask.  It was a unique approach to a debut video, but the impact spoke for itself.  “Da Funk” would go on to sell more copies than Homework itself and was the major reason that “Musique” was not included on the album, as Daft Punk reasoned that through the sales of the single, most fans already had the track anyway.  I still pull this one out all the time and this was the only track in the Alive 2007 set list that was given a standalone segment (albeit with Daftendirekt layered over top).  Even with dubstep focusing on similar tempos and sounds these days, I’ve never heard a tune that sounds quite like this.  If a band is going to introduce themselves to the world, this is one hell of a way to do it.  Check out the video if you’ve never seen it before or simply want to revisit a classic; you won’t be sorry.

5.  Phoenix – This was the track that convinced me to finally pick this album up.  I was music hunting in downtown Toronto when I heard this one and immediately asked the clerk who it was.  “Daft Punk”, she responded.  I rang up my purchase about 30 seconds later.

At that point I was already playing out “Around the World” and “Da Funk” and I was amazed to discover Daft Punk had a sound like this.  It opens with progressive layers of 909 drums, hi-hats and percussion and the introduction of a very gospel sounding vocal sample.  Throw in a very cool rolling bassline and you end up with a very slick, four-to-the-floor house track which has been a staple of my deeper house sets for years.  The arrangement makes mixing in and out very easy and demonstrates that you can pick almost any track from this album and drop it almost anywhere.  One word of advice:  avoid the Basement Jaxx remix found on “Daft Club” like the plague; it simply does not do the original any justice.

Well, that’s Side A done.  Stay tuned as we continue our track-by-track review with Part 2 coming to you very soon!  Be sure to check out the rest of the posts on thekeytothehouse, and let us know what you think!