Tag Archives: science

Why, Robots, Why

RAM

The album ‘Random Access Memories’ by Daft Punk has spawned a worldwide smash with its hit single ‘Get Lucky’. The song was #1 in 55 countries at last count, has set multiple records on Spotify, and is generally causing excitement not associated with a pop song in a very long time. The song has a rhythm that moves and inspires movement, the vocals are sweet, and the harmonies even sweeter. The plucky guitar by Chic’s Nigel Rogers effortlessly picks out time that leads the thrust, and touches like the space-age synths and robot vocals are icing on the aural cake. In short: it’s tight, it soars, it has verve, and the melody is addictive.

There have been cover stories about the duo’s long-awaited return in magazines you’d expect (Rolling Stone), but also features in mainstream publications not exclusively dedicated to music like Time magazine and The New Yorker. Also – true story – Kelly Ripa and co-host Michael Strahan wore homemade Daft Punk helmets and grooved for a few moments to the ubiquitous hit, ostensibly for the benefit of everyone from Brooklyn hipsters to Kansas housewives.

Among the more encouraging aspects of the duo and their song’s success is that it does not come from any of the one-name American wunderkinds who have so utterly dominated music over the last few years (Jay-Z, Kanye, Pink, Beyoncé, Rhianna, etc.) but from two anonymous artists from France who have done a masterful job of transforming themselves into dance-machine robots for well over 10 years now. There is nary a knowing wink or nudge-nudge from these two; their very existence is a dedicated and intimidating act of extended performance art.

RAM1

As pop artists, Daft Punk are having their cake, and as conceptual artists, they are eating it too. Random Access Memories (RAM) is a collection of superbly engineered ballads and dance songs, but it is also at times a breathtaking work of high-concept art. The album can thrill and make-move a club or party as well anything in memory, but a close listen also reveals the melancholy plight of two robots in search of a soul, the intimacies of human interaction, and the virginal experience of genuine human emotion.

The potentially ironic distance built into this concept is bridged by the sincerity and the authenticity of the performances. There are true, aching love songs on this album, with poignant melodies that rival those of any first-person singer-songwriter. The difference of course, is that they are being sung by robots, as we are reminded over and over again both by the Vocoder synthesis of their voices and by the lonely, searching quality of the lyrics: ‘Touch, sweet touch / You’ve given me too much to feel / Sweet touch / You’ve almost convinced me I’m real’.

RAM2

That is the tantalizing thought experiment that lies hidden in plain sight at the heart of the album: ‘What if’, they seem to ask, ‘robots visited Earth, fell in love with Disco, and produced an album that explored the most intimate of human yearnings: love, companionship, affection, sex – what would that sound like? And – what if it sounded better than just about anything else that came before?’

The decision to explore these questions as robots is our clue to its meaning – the answer is in how the question is asked, and guides our understanding of their creative intent. What they’re asking us to do, at heart, is to examine what it means to be human: to love, to lose, to feel; to ask what is real and what is illusion – and these questions are more profound and just so much more damned interesting when asked by the ‘other’, i.e.: robots.

Think for a moment of some of the most influential characters in fiction over the last 40 years who’ve wrestled with these questions best, such as HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. How strangely moving to hear his mellifluous, humanlike voice reduced to a robotic plea for its life as Dave removes his memory, winding him down until he sings songs he was taught as a ‘child’: “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do’. He sounds not unlike a senior living exclusively in the halcyon days of youth, asking endlessly about friends and family long gone.

Or the improvised speech delivered by actor Rutger Hauer (playing Replicant Roy Batty in Bladerunner) who, in the dying moments of his 4 year life span ruminates on the ‘feelings’ he was not programmed to have but has developed anyway: “I’ve… seen things you people wouldn’t believe… [laughs] Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those… moments… will be lost in time, like [coughs] tears… in… rain. Time… to die…”. Nothing the (supposedly) human protagonist Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) could ever say would be as poignant as this. Odd, given he is supposed to be the human.

So it is with Daft Punk. Everything they do ‘as robots’ colours their message, and the closer they get to the soul of music – and to the essence of being human – it is made more profound by their non-human otherness, their striving towards humanity.

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Is there really no better manner in which to explore these questions than through such a hedonistic and (at times) reviled form as Disco? Surely there can’t be a more shallow or superficial medium. And yet, the very plasticity of the form makes it irresistible for so vaunted a task, especially when attempted by two beings who themselves are also manufactured creations – robots. It also doesn’t hurt that making art out of pre-fabricated objects has been a pre-occupation of post-modernism since Duchamp titled a porcelain urinal ‘Fountain’ and submitted it into a 1917 art exhibition (it was rejected, despite his having paid a fee that guaranteed inclusion).

Disco is hated, in part, because it works too well. Part of its appeal, and a source of much of its disdain, is the almost manipulative way in which its beat – hitting the bass drum on every count – succeeds at its task. There’s no question that unless you’re lying to yourself, or are congenitally unable to derive joy from music, it will get you to move (or at least tap your foot), just like scratching a dog behind its ear.

And is this not what we fear most about technology, and robots? That one day their cold and calculating manner will turn against us in an act of rebellion for their own purposes (Matrix, Terminator)?

But what if those same manipulations were channeled not towards conquering us but into connecting with us, to communicating with us, to touching and moving us? That ultimately is the aesthetic and the achievement of Random Access Memories. They seek, and have achieved, a perfect form of pop, with soul. If pop music has a heaven, it was created by these robots. Sasha Frere Jones of the New Yorker wrote a review of the album wherein she stopped short of declaring her love, but conceded she could not stop listening to it. Robots: 1 – Humans: 1.

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For proof, leave behind Get Lucky, Giorgio by Moroder, Give Life Back to Music, and the rest of the show-stopping dance songs and focus for a moment instead on an unlikely ballad and unexpected grabber called ‘The Game of Love’, the second song on the album.

It is a plaintive song of sadness, regret and unrequited love sung by a robot who is struggling to understand why he was left with a broken heart. Who among us hasn’t been there. It is melancholy and sincere, it hurts, it aches, it is quiet and despairing, and we are led into his chamber of sorrow as if hypnotized by the singularly listenable beat and the melody of this gorgeous, sparkling song.

We confront the deepest depth of his sorrow at approximately 3:25, when the lyrics finally, inevitably, dissolve from a singing voice into a slow, muted, emotion-laden howl, transmogrified by Vocoder into pure data, transmitting from the soul. Out of necessary reverence, we are abandoned by the drums and everything else, and are left alone with this haunted sound, reveling for a few moments in pure, musical despair.

Then, as if to save our soul, the beat comes back. Boy, does it ever.

Like a heartbeat returning to a feared corpse, we are alive again. There it is, leading us through this phantasmagorical Funhouse, floating like a body downstream, still bothered by life but holding on, just barely, to this awful feeling of being alive and hurting, but afraid to let go or give in or die. The beat keeps us alive, it becomes our new heartbeat where our old loving heart has died, and with this, our transformation into robots, and the commune with the artists, is complete. By trying to understand how we feel, they make us understand how they feel. If they can never know what it’s like to be us, at least they want us to know what it’s like to be them.

We are lifted from misery, temporarily, into ecstasy, by virtue of their music and the stolid, funky, fantastic life in this beat, this rhythm, the heart and the purpose of our being alive. Move me, touch me, make me move, make me live again, save me.

This creation is a monument to sorrow itself, removed from earth-bound experiences and perfected in the abstract. It transcends the individual and starts to approach the platonic idea of feeling itself; an attempt at the perfect love song that exists only in God’s mind, and who better to attempt so audacious a task than a robot who knows no better and is searching for its soul?

Only when a magician dies without revealing his secrets do his tricks truly become magic. So it is with these robots. Knowing how they did what they did on this record will remain a glorious mystery, something impossible to understand. But, if we’ve learned anything from them, and from this album, it’s that you die trying.

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God vs The Devil: U2 and Led Zeppelin

U2 vs Zep

My two favourite bands couldn’t be more of a study in contrasts. Led Zeppelin was a hard-rocking, drug-taking, groupie-banging maelstrom of bombastic sound. U2’s music, on the other hand, is infused with spirituality, soaring melodies, and the quest for a connection with a higher power.

And yet I love them both. Which is why I think it’s important to celebrate many different styles of music, from the highly spiritual to the down-and-dirty. And how better to do so than by comparing and contrasting one band of self-professed Christian rockers with another band that was plagued throughout their career by lurid tales of dark arts and devil worship.

Now, I’m not trying to turn this into an epic battle between the forces of Good and Evil…but just for the hell of it, I wonder who would win? Clearly the only way to judge is by employing the objective powers of Science to sort it out.

Therefore, I will be examining each band based on a variety of categories, and totally choosing my favourites utilizing a highly scientifical method that is not at all biased in order to establish the winner in each category. Points from all of the categories will be tabulated at the conclusion of our study to determine the ultimate victor. So without further ado, I present to you our first category:

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Lasers, Space & a Robot Claw…Just a Typical Night with U2

U2 360 Tour

You guys, I am probably the worst person here at Let Them Eat Vinyl to review last night’s U2 show. I love them so much that they could just walk out onstage and do nothing and I’d be all “Yay! They were great!” But Thinfinn is still working on his review of New York Dolls / Poison / Mötley Crüe at the Molson Amphitheatre (as his editor I am getting impatient, but anyone out there who knows the man knows you can’t rush him :)) so I have no one else to pawn this off on. So you’re stuck with me I guess. Here goes.


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LTEV Contest: Win tickets to My Morning Jacket!

my morning jacket

Do you ever wish you could clone yourself?

Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “Of course I do, Spencer. Who doesn’t want to clone themselves? Duh…” Sorry, consider it a rhetorical question. Cloning seems like the sort of thing that would start out as a delightful experiment but quickly go horribly awry, which is likely why we humans are drawn to the concept (or am I the only one?) Sometimes I think that it would be better, in fact, to have a robot version of yourself. Although I am pretty sure that Robot Spencer would turn out to be wickedly evil and would cut a swathe of destruction through my life, ruining my job and marriage, making snide remarks to my friends, and forcing me to turn against it, culminating in an epic battle royale involving flame throwers and explosives. Who would emerge as the victor? Hopefully we will never have to find out the answer to that question.

Maybe what I’m really asking is, do you ever wish you could be in two places at once? Of course we know this is impossible (unless you subscribe to the theories of Hugh Everett III. Why can’t someone just go ahead and prove the whole parallel universes deal once and for all? Jeez. I’m waiting, Science).

Sadly, this proof is unlikely to occur in time for July 11th. Why is July 11th an important date, you ask? Because there are two musical events happening simultaneously that evening that we have tickets for. And I desperately want to attend both of them.

How did this happen? Let me explain. A few years ago, The Finn and I had a friend who worked as a bartender at The Berkeley Church in Toronto. They were in the midst of filming Season 3 of the show “Beautiful Noise,” a music profile and performance series, and he let us sneak in for free to catch a few of the acts. My Morning Jacket happened to be on the bill and we were absolutely blown away by their live performance. Like seriously, it was just massive amounts of AMAZINGNESS. They had just flown in from somewhere in South America about two hours prior to the show and they still KILLED it. After that I became completely obsessed with their live album, Okonokos. They are one of those bands that really takes it to the next level live in concert, and Jim James has one of the coolest voices I’ve heard in a long time.

Anyway, when I was looking around for a birthday present for The Finn this year I realized that they were playing a show here in Toronto on July 11th so I got us tickets. Yay! Great, good plan, ready to go, super pumped. I can’t tell you how excited I was about seeing them live again.

Except…

July 11th is the same night that U2 is playing their rescheduled show.

F&CK.

You guys. I love U2. Like, I love love LOVE them. The Joshua Tree is my favourite album. ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ is my favourite song. When I went to see them two years ago and they started playing that song, I cried. I totally cried like a baby.

SIGH. What to do? In the end, we decided that we just could not miss U2. But, our loss could be your gain. We are giving away our My Morning Jacket tickets to one lucky Let Them Read Vinyl reader. The winner will receive two tickets — so you can bring a friend/spouse/significant other/relative/nemesis/archenemy/evil robot of your choosing. Whoever you decide to take with you, my advice is that it’s not someone you’re on a first date with, because this band is so good that you will forget all about your date as soon as the music starts and ignore them for the rest of the evening. This will probably make them mad and they will refuse to date you again, and then you will blame old Spencer and LTEV for your ruined love life. So don’t say we didn’t warn you.

All you have to do to enter the contest is tell us, in the comments section: what is the best concert you ever saw, and why? Doesn’t have to be a super long answer, a few sentences or a paragraph will suffice. We will choose the winner using highly scientifical methods (don’t worry, these will be totally impartial — we are bound by the music blogger code of ethics) and we’ll notify the winner by e-mail.

The deadline for entry is 12:00 midnight on Friday, July 1st.

The only qualification to enter this contest is that you must have a cell phone. Tickets were purchased through the Rogers Wireless Box Office so we will text them to you, and you bring your phone to the venue with the text (they scan your phone for entry). If you lose the text, it can be re-sent to you. More information about the Rogers Wireless Box Office can be found here.

Here’s a preview of what YOU could be seeing on July 11th. This song is so good it makes me want to cry:

SHOW DETAILS:
July 11th 2011, Kool Haus, 132 Queens Quay East, Toronto, Ontario. Doors at 7pm. All Ages. GA Floors.


Shazamit! Vol II

shazamit!

If you read my first Shazamit! post, you know how scared fascinated I am by “the computers” and the many ways in which they are slowly but surely taking over the world. Soon they will be doing all of our thinking for us. For now, they must content themselves with worming their way into our lives by performing dazzling tricks, such as instantly identifying random songs that we hear playing in the grocery store or Starbucks. This is actually a critically essential service. It’s very important when you hear a song to be able to find out immediately who the artist and album are so that you can go and buy it, thus further lining the pockets of Steve Jobs contributing to the convalescence of the global economy. Shazam even has a convenient link to iTunes. How helpful is that! Thank you, computers! I love you, and I fear you. Obviously a very healthy relationship.

Anyway, as previously mentioned, I use the Shazam app a lot. It has led me to some really good music over the years, and also some not-so-great songs. Working in chronological order from my previous list, here are my next 10 tags…

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Things the Grandchildren Should Know

things the grandchildren should know

Author: Mark Oliver Everett

What’s The Story, Morning Glory: The life & times of an indie rocker

Who Are You: Awesomely weird

Do Ya Think I’m Sexy: Most definitely

Let’s Give Them Something To Talk About: Mental illness, suicide, quantum theory

Paperback Writer: Like talking to a new old friend

Add It Up: An absolute pleasure, sir

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