Daft Punk

Alive 1997


Tall Paul

Mixed Live


Detractors of the house diaspora frequently complain about the music’s site specificity–its reliance on set and setting, rather than anything inherent in the notes or rhythms, to make an impact. Somewhat confusingly, its partisans say the same thing about it with a different spin: the magic is best appreciated in context, they argue, with the right DJ playing the right tracks in the right club at the right time to the right crowd on the right drugs. But since no scene thrives without fresh blood, the puzzle for club-oriented musicians is how to translate this experience into something that stay-at-homes might not only decipher but be enticed by. Good old homemade mix tapes don’t circulate much beyond the converted, so DJs commit their mixes to CDs and record companies.

As with a “real” band, a DJ’s live performance has a lot to do with his synergy with an audience. A band can respond to a crowd by improvising, holding the mike out over the masses for a chorus, maybe varying the tempo–all things you can capture on tape. But most dance sets tick to a specific tempo to keep people on the floor–drastically speeding up or slowing down tends to kill the vibe. DJs are also pretty much at the mercy of prerecorded sounds, which limits improvisatory possibilities, and most interact with the audience by “reading” it to plot out the course of a set–something done at least in part on a visual basis: are they young or old? urban or suburban? casual or dressed to the nines? Unfortunately, most official mix CDs aren’t even recorded live, per se; instead, the selections are often spliced together in Pro Tools. Even the ones that are cut on turntables and a mixer are frequently made in the isolation of a studio.

There have been exceptions to this; Jeff Mills’s great 1996 CD, Live at the Liquid Room, Tokyo, for instance, even featured crowd noise, picked up in a happy accident by the needles of Mills’s turntables. A couple recently released mix CDs, though, aim to up the ante. Daft Punk’s Alive 1997, issued by Virgin, and Tall Paul’s Mixed Live, on the LA dance imprint Moonshine, attempt to bring the whole live club experience into the living room, and the degree to which each one works is at least partly contingent on the audience.

Previous editions of Moonshine’s “Mixed Live” series featuring Carl Cox, AK1200, and Donald Glaude lived up to their documentary billing almost too perfectly, each catching the DJ on an average night. Trouble is, the point should be to capture him on an ideal night. Six-foot-six Londoner Paul Newman, a veteran DJ and producer with a long association with Moonshine (he mixed the 1994 comp Dance Hits U.K.), delivers a more eclectic set than any of them, moving from Chicago house to epic trance to speedy hip-house.

For the most part, Paul’s mix bumps along pleasantly enough. He fans the flames of the party shamelessly and often, via the stuttering bass line that breaks through Mauro Picotto’s tense “Like This Like That,” the speedy rap vocals of Jan Driver’s remix of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Funky Heroes,” and the screaming-diva synth blats of “God’s Love,” Paul’s own collaboration with Tin Tin Out’s Darren Stokes and Daniele Davoli of Black Box. And the big, pacific breakdown of Accadia’s trance track “Into the Dawn” occasions shouts from the crowd that actually heighten the song’s “emotional”–or, more accurately, endorphin-rush-inducing–core. Still, the potboiling nature of most of Paul’s devices gives a lot of the commentary a canned feel, like a sitcom laugh track–and I can’t help wondering if the audience at Giant, the Los Angeles club where the set was taped and many a sitcom scene has been set, hammed it up some.

Ironically, the album’s best track, Big Fat’s aptly titled “Discogogofiesta,” prompted this liner note: “Note that the crowd noise on track 15 is on the track and not the Giant crowd.” Though underused on mix CDs, crowd noise has long been a feature of studio dance records, from the party noises in the background of 70s funk and disco records to the massed roars early-90s rave tracks used for what critic Simon Reynolds likens to creating a “feedback loop” with the audience. Paul might not be terribly original, but if nothing else, playing a record with crowd noise to elicit crowd noise during a DJ set intended for release as a record with crowd noise shows conceptual cojones.

There’s no such audacity on Daft Punk’s disc; in fact, the only surprising thing about Alive 1997 is that it’s not a double CD. That would be more than appropriate, since the live double was such a staple of 70s rock culture and the French duo’s last studio album, Discovery, was a veritable love song to the 70s, from the spangled disco loops of “One More Time” and “Superheroes” to the jazz-funk guitars of “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” to the Vocoderized vocals of “Digital Love,” which, furthermore, is built on a guitar and keyboard riff that sounds like a Giorgio Moroder rewrite of “Layla.”

Alive 1997 was taken from a DJ set recorded in England during Daft Punk’s first tour, well before house-heads were crying sellout at the more song-based Discovery. Here, staticky tones are distended like pulled taffy, arcing upward until they squeal and shriek; odd vocal samples (“The only down with the” and “A fun a block too” are the closest I could get to deciphering a couple of them) run amok underneath; bass lines flood everything like high tide. The duo, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem Christo, spend 45 contiguous minutes insistently fucking with components of tracks from their ’97 debut, Homework. (Alive 1997 doesn’t ID any of the individual songs, but an advance copy listed “Da Funk” and “Rollin’ & Scratchin’.”)

This tends to be more interesting than enjoyable, not least because those songs were already pretty well formed. What makes Alive fun is the way the audience responds to the manipulations. Where Tall Paul’s mix feels grab-baggy, Daft Punk’s manhandling of the crowd is expert. Right off the bat, with the gibbering 303s of “Work,” the audience is already yelling en masse: Come on, give it to us! they seem to be saying. We can take it! Let us have it! As they mix into “Da Funk” layer by layer (a squiggling subriff, the walloping disco kick drum, and finally the main hook), the dancing fools erupt a little more; by the time the track takes off, you can hear them collectively lose their shit. It’s the kind of sonic tease that, in the middle of a crowd, in the middle of the night, high on adrenaline or pharmaceuticals or a lot of Red Bull, induces spasmodic dancing fits, makes you feel 110 percent alive, keeps you moving even through the dull spots that inevitably follow, and wakes you up the next morning humming “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life.”

At home, of course, it’s a little different: the one time this album sounded as visceral on a stereo as it probably did in the room the night it was recorded was when I happened to hear it in a crowded record store. Obviously, being there it’s not. But it’s suggestive enough of the proper setting that, even if you don’t particularly care for the music, you can start to see what the fuss is about.