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As history had unveiled, France was never a hot spot for international pop/rock stars (only FRANCOISE HARDY, SERGE GAINSBOURG, JEAN MICHEL JARRE and VANESSA PARADIS jump out from the page), but when the late 90s unearthed the likes of electro-pop duos DAFT PUNK and AIR, a Gallic confidence arose that has inspired everyone from PHOENIX to DAVID GUETTA.
Inspirited musically in their fascination for easy-listening exotica, continental film scores and prozac-kitsch, AIR breathed new life into the electro-disco phenomenon that was infiltrating living rooms that 70s “krautrock” might’ve passed up. And if you’ve ever suspected AIR of Francophone archness, their irony-free, ambient tour de force will rob one of one’s assumptions faster than a Citroen C5 hurtling the wrong way down a one-way street.
Formed in Versailles, France, in 1995, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel cut their proverbial teeth waking the neighbours up in a punk outfit called Orange. Preceded by a string of highly desirable 12″ singles (from `Modulor Mix’ and `Casanova 70’, to `Le Soleil Est Pres De Moi’), collected together on an extended EP, `Premiers Symptomes’ (1997) – later a compilation set, AIR had acquired a slow-burning following as imports filtered throughout the continent.
To avoid confusion with another outfit named AIR, “French Band” was attached in small writing next to their moniker when Virgin (through Source Records) unleashed the sublime MOON SAFARI (1998) {*9} album; an album that ranks as one of that year’s most hypnotic, emotive and consistently listenable long players – the Moog was back.
With the added kudos of being an essential purchase for any self-respecting fashion victim, the record’s unearthly ELO-meets-MORODER-meets-BACHARACH hybrid had music journalists of all persuasions (with the possible exception of the metal press) reaching for the thesaurus. Those that portrayed AIR as mere faux-space-age lounge revivalists were surely missing the point, however; they might’ve doffed their cap to classic French pop but Messrs Godin and Dunckel were in the business of making music to last – serious business. Seriously sexy in fact, sexy in the way that SAINT ETIENNE used to be, all throbbing bass and breathless melodies.
While the likes of breakthrough hit, `Sexy Boy’, might actually have one questioning one’s closely-guarded conviction that the 80s were pitiful, the liberal sprinkling of Moog synth throughout places the record in a kind of vacuum-packed 70s no-man’s land. A damn good place to be, especially if one happens to have a king-sized spliff, a decent pair of “cans” and one’s favourite armchair to hand. No surprise then, that the album also gate-crashed the UK charts, as did the attendant ELO-styled `Kelly Watch The Stars’ single.
If there was a World Cup for music, “French Band” AIR – the Zinedine Zidane of pop! – would definitely have been in there with a shout, the French re-drawing of contemporary musical battle lines continuing unabated. Augmented by the whispery Beth Hirsch on `All I Need’ and `You Make It Easy’, the album certainly had similarities with Jean-Yves Prieur/KID LOCO’s “A Grand Love Story” (released only months before), but AIR had shown two were better than one.
A duo whose dolefully luxurious sound owed more than a smidgen to classic film scoring, Gallic space-lounge duo AIR couldn’t have been too surprised when directorial debutante Sofia Coppola hired them for her meta-comic tale of doomed youth: THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (2000) {*8}. While the mid-noughties would see messieurs Godin and Dunckel go on to work with French soundtrack don, Michel Colombier, here they more or less took their creative cues from the same primordial synth arsenal (or, as Rolling Stone memorably put it, “shag-carpet organ straight from the soundtracks of movies such as Un Homme et Une Femme”), which made their “Moon Safari” opus such an anachronistic triumph.
Unshackled by the demands of a pop record, the pair used familiar ingredients to create something slightly more cerebral and impressionistic without ever really deviating from their bachelor-pad boffin blueprint. While opener `Playground Love’ functioned primarily as a cinematic companion and was released as a single, only Gordon Tracks’ vocal and Hugo Ferran’s deliciously torpid sax actually distinguished it as such; with a bit of embellishment, the likes of `Bathroom Girl’, or even `Clouds Up’ could’ve performed the same function and, like much of this album, would’ve made great raw material for a “Moon Safari Vol.2”.
The muted modulations of `Dark Messages’ or whooshing sci-fi communiqués of `Dirty Trip’ represented les garçons at their most oblique, it was pretty much the kind of sonic debris one might expect from an AIR soundtrack. Yet no matter how frequently their knob-twiddling melancholy might’ve hurled them into the orbit of classic PINK FLOYD territory, they couldn’t wring the warmth from their sound, so indelible and intoxicating was that analogue-acoustic patent. And, surprisingly, when they did step it up a gear, the effect was truly stunning. In its almost cosmic continental aura (shades of MORRICONE’s crime score classic, “Svegliati E Uccidi”) and disembodied dynamism, `Dead Bodies’ reprised that mysterious elixir of 60s/70s film music more evocatively than almost anything released since then; if that old “cathedral of sound” cliché was applicable anywhere, it was here.
The Gallic duo emerged again the following year with 10 000 HZ LEGEND (2001) {*7}, a worthy if more deliberately inscrutable follow-up to their 1998 treasure. The prog-rock cover art was a bit of a giveaway; AIR opting to hue their electronic tapestries from much darker, unsettling source material than the Moog-pop references of their debut. It was nevertheless immaculately crafted, flawlessly executed and often eerily beautiful, the likes of BECK and JASON FALKNER enhancing its post-modern appeal. What the album didn’t need – in fact what most albums don’t need – was a collection of tired remixes, even if the re-workings came from such in demand studio names as The NEPTUNES. The cornily-titled EVERYBODY HERTZ (2002) {*4} also received nil points for its title, as insipid as the grooves contained within its tacky concept.
CITY READING (TRE STORIE WESTERN) (2003) {*5} was a soundtrack follow-up of sorts, the musical accompaniment to a triptych of spoken-word stories by Italian novelist Alessandro Baricco. Much more high profile was TALKIE WALKIE (2004) {*8}, trumpeted as the real follow-up to “Moon Safari”, with Nigel Godrich (who else?) on production and SERGE GAINSBOURG associate/composer Michel Colombier on strings. Just missing out on a UK No.1 spot, the set opened with a couple of bona fide AIR classics: `Venus’ and `Cherry Blossom Girls’, the kind of goose-down pop that the Americans still haven’t quite cottoned on to. The presence of Godrich and Colombier had the effect of channelling the duo’s weirder impulses into offbeat curios like the electro-spewing `Surfing On A Rocket’, the eerie screen-pulse of `Another Day’, the space-whistling of `Alpha Beta Gaga’ (a recognisable minor hit used for a TV ad) and `Alone In Kyoto’, originally written for the feature film Lost In Translation.
Taking time out to produce CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG’s enterprising solo record, “5:55”, and allowing Jean-Benoit to exercise his solo exploits via his eponymous DARKEL (2006) {*6} set (best tracks: `At The End Of The Sky’, `Beautiful Woman’ and `How Brave You Are’), AIR dusted themselves down for another reel-to-reel cacophony of sound in POCKET SYMPHONY (2007) {*7}. Augmented by wayfaring indie stars, JARVIS COCKER (on `One Hell Of A Party’ and `Somewhere Between Waking And Sleeping’); the latter with The DIVINE COMEDY’s Neil Hannon, there was a certain Oriental-ambience or filmic feel on others such as `Mer Du Japon’, `Once Upon A Time’ and `Lost Message’.
Moderate Top 40 sales for this and its follow-up, LOVE 2 (2009) {*7}, surely brought a time of reflection for their candy-coated knob-twiddling. Although never formulaic and staid, and with the addition of veteran “live” drummer Joey Waronker, the atmospheric AIR were fast approaching the tender age 40. Balancing perilously as ever between a (soft-)rock and a hard place (to be futuristic and schmaltzy), the duo shined through on the more experimental exotica like `Do The Joy’, the WYATT-esque `Tropical Disease’ and the TORTOISE-ish `African Velvet’; but that’s not to say that the dream-pop of `Sing Sang Sung’, `So Light Is Her Footfall’ and the gorgeous `Heaven’s Light’, were of no merit.
Probably percolating in their minds since given the commission to re-score Georges Melies’ 100-year-old sci-fi milestone, LE VOYAGE DANS LA LUNE (2012) {*7} – “A Trip To The Moon”, AIR were comfortably back on cosmic celluloid terra firma. While stylized on a retro “2001: A Space Odyssey” with a twist of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (another vintage b&w treasure), Godin and Dunckel took off on their mission to find the lunar holy grail. While this was no TANGERINE DREAM-cum-GOBLIN-type cineflex, the prog-styled AIR explored fresh atmospheric soundscapes on several superb pieces, including `Moon Fever’, `Sonic Armada’, `Cosmic Trip’ and `Seven Stars’ – pity it only lasted a half-hour.
Influenced in part by symphonic krautrock-pop as much as GAINSBOURG, Glenn Gould and TOMITA, NICOLAS GODIN’s classically-enhanced Johann Sebastian Bach tribute set, CONTREPOINT {*7}, was a breath of fresh AIR to the year 2015. Pianists and Moog men everywhere would salivate throughout this jazzy, cigar-smoking-ad of a renaissance record, highlighted by the BRUBECK-esque `Club Nine’, the WALTER CARLOS-esque `Orca’ (the opening piece) and the punningly-titled `Bach Off’ (the latter tribal excursion segued by eerie ELP-meets-LEGRAND-like piano flourishes).
© MC Strong 2000-2008/BG/MCS-LCS // rev-up MCS Nov2013-Sep2015

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