Air: Pocket Symphony

By: Karl-Erik Stromsta

Over the past decade, French duo Air has diced up electro-jazz, disco and classical music, sautéing them to delicious, pretentious perfection. Since 1998’s Moon Safari defined their last-joint-of-the-night vibe, Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicholas Godin have made some of the smartest, most interesting chill music this side of Miles Davis.

As mood creationists Air is unparalleled, and Pocket Symphony (released March 6 on Astralwerks) has no greater ambition than giving form and life to a single, sustained musical narrative. The hand of producer extraordinaire Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck, Zero 7) is evident in the album’s consistent sense of direction. Such consistency, however, does not always work for Air, and at times flirts with predictability.

Air’s music has always been filled with dark, evocative space and depth. Pocket Symphony provides plenty of spectral real estate to explore. But, the clever mood manipulation ultimately comes off as emotionally distant and lacking soul. Surely, even French robots must cry.

Pocket Symphony starts off with a bang. “Spacemaker,” with its taut, insistent bass line poking holes in a low-hanging cloud cover of sweeping, celestial synthesizers, is one of Air’s best songs ever. The haunting piano pirouettes of “Once Upon A Time” can only be described as fairy tale chamber music. Air has a singular way of evoking bliss and sadness in the same breath, and no song does it better.

Throughout their five studio albums, Godin and Dunckel have shown a remarkably consistent tin ear for lyrics, tempered slightly when they sing in French. Typically, they’ve compensated for their helium-pumped voices and shallow lyrics by inviting guest vocalists to lend their songs a veneer of emotional relevance. Beth Hirsch’s contributions to Moon Safari yielded several of the album’s most memorable songs, and Beck’s turn on 2002’s 10000Hz Legend is pure, under-the-radar gold. This time around they would have been better off keeping the party small. Former Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker may be riding a wave of nostalgia at the moment, with a new solo album and a four-star Rolling Stone review, but his collaboration, “One Hell of a Party,” should have been called “One Hell of a Boring Song.” It falls flat from the start, with whiny, emotionally overwrought vocals and clumsy lyrics set atop a whirlpool of supremely unnecessary cowbells. Subsequent numbers sung by Divine Comedy frontman Neil Hannon and delightful actress-cum-chanteuse Charlotte Gainsbourg (whose fabulous new album 5:55 was produced by Air) don’t fare much better.

As any kid who ever lucked into an undeservedly good report card knows, high expectations can be dangerous. Pocket Symphony is a very good album. But when you’ve come to expect brilliance, “very good” seems like a lot of hot air.

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