Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin arrived on the electronica scene in an era of dance-oriented techno like Chemical Brothers and kitsched-out space-age pop like Dimitri From Paris. To say that the French duo (not to be confused with the jazz-fusion Air Henry Threadgill led in the ’70s) fell somewhere in between is one way to describe it, but Air — despite the creative use of vintage analog electronic instruments — earnestly considered itself a more serious pop- or rock-oriented unit. Utilizing a dream-like blend of synths that harks back to an antiquated, idealized vision of the future, Air maps out its original — though somehow familiar — aural landscapes. Aside from the occasional guest vocalist, much of Air’s organic sound can be heard as background or soundtrack music (which they actually dabbled in after first establishing themselves as hip pop vanguards).
The brilliance of Moon Safari isn’t that it tries out some new sound — it’s too rooted in retro electronica for that — but that its expert incorporation of influences (as much Can as Burt Bacharach) fleshes out musical concepts to find solace in the emptiness of outer space and beauty in ennui. The gorgeous “La Femme D’Argent” (which became the backing track of a cosmetics ad) starts things off with an entrancing, surreptitious bass groove. The goofy fluke hit “Sexy Boy” is a stylistic incongruity on an album that otherwise flows almost seamlessly with an infectious, casual assurance. Somehow the vocoderized vocals on “Kelly, Watch the Stars” and “Remember” have no less warmth and feeling than Beth Hirsch’s human (yet distant) voicing on “All I Need” and “You Make It Easy.” What underlies Moon Safari is a keen understanding of easy listening music and a reverence for France’s pop ancestry, namely Serge Gainsbourg and Francoise Hardy (with whom Air would collaborate in 1999 on the Pop Romantique compilation).
The tracks on Premiers Symptomes are from singles released between 1995 and 1997; as predecessors to Moon Safari some are even more moody and evocative. “Modular Mix” recalls Alain Goraguer’s funky astro-soundtrack for the 1973 animated sci-fantasy La Planète Sauvage (Fantastic Planet), while “Les Professionnels” marries Isaac Hayes to Herb Alpert. “Casanova 70,” variations on a groove, is the highlight. The reissue of Premiers Symptomes adds two tracks for a total of seven.
Sofia Coppola’s invitation to Air to score her directorial debut, a loss-of-innocence film set in the ’70s, made for an inspired pairing. Better still, The Virgin Suicides‘ somber mood summoned a darker side of Air, one which owed much to Pink Floyd. The centerpiece is the wistful “Playground Love,” on which Gordon Tracks provides the album’s only vocal while a sultry sax plays in the background. “Dark Messages” inventively combines a backwards Moog track with an eerie vibraphone, and “Suicide Underground” summarizes the film’s plot with tweaked samples of voice-over narration.
In between Moon Safari and Air’s proper sophomore album, 10,000 Hz. Legend, two crucial things happened in the world of pop music. First, Cher’s processed vocals on her hit “Believe” paved the way for a new sort of electronica/Top 40 hybrid with a reach that extended beyond the dance floor. Daft Punk dived into this new era joyfully and unabashedly with the worldwide smash “One More Time.” Second, Radiohead took the notion of experimentation to an extreme, fortifying their artistic integrity while proving a band could succeed in America without radio (or even MTV) play. In this climate, there was obvious pressure on Air to produce a masterpiece.
The result was a complicated concept album whose scope too closely resembles Roger Waters’ misguided 1987 Radio Kaos LP. In “Electronic Performers,” which begins 10,000 Hz. Legend, Air proclaims, “We search new programs for your pleasure.” Valiantly search as they might, nothing here strikes as much of a chord as Moon Safari. Dunckel and Godin up the ante with added guests, including Roger Manning (Moog Cookbook), Brian Reitzell (Redd Kross), Buffalo Daughter, Jason Falkner and Beck (on the technofolk oddity “The Vagabond” and the trip- adelic “Don’t Be Light”) — but the best moments are still their own. “Radian,” “Wonder Milky Bitch” and “Sex Born Poison” successfully revisit and expand upon the soundtrack genre, and the lofty sing-along chorus portions of “How Does It Make You Feel?” and “Radio #1” suggest ELO and a new sort of mechanical bubblegum pop (“stereo gum”), but otherwise this collection of modern-life vignettes is too loosely (or is it densely?) organized. Ultimately, it’s a confusing, sterile mess, as if Air had left their machines in charge. “Machines gave me some freedom / Synthesizers gave me some wings,” goes one couplet here, and it sounds like a premature epitaph for a band that appear creatively spent far too soon in their career.
Everybody Hertz is a pointless collection of remixes and one new song that sheds little, if any, light on the band or the difficult music of its last album. In 2002, Air recorded music to be played under the recitations of Italian writer Alessandro Barioco.