Air Apparent 

Dare to dismiss the iconoclastic French electronica duo at your own peril.

One lonesome night far in the future -- perhaps five or ten years from now -- you will jolt bolt upright in bed at 3:30 a.m. and realize that Air's 10,000 Hz Legend ranks among the finest and most terrifying art-rock records ever created. Upon grasping this fact, and recalling that you've disparaged, dismissed, and disregarded said record all these years, you will weep endless tears of shame.

It is a miserable fate that you fully deserve.

"I think it's a very complicated album," allows Air's Nicolas Godin, cautiously. "I would like for it to be someday rediscovered, like [Beastie Boys'] Paul's Boutique."

For now, 2001's Legend remains a jarring and endlessly disturbing anomaly in the catalogue of the multi-instrumentalist French duo -- much in the way that Adam Sandler fans regard Punch-Drunk Love. Air broke out in 1998 with Moon Safari, a splendid little bistro of lush lounge-pop that, frankly, belongs in the Makeout Music Hall of Fame. (Nicolas -- pronounced Ni-co-la -- allows that Safari is "sensual.") Hit single "Sexy Boy," with its French-studio-rats-write-a-Prince-song gyrations, taught scores of graduate students how to drool all over each other at a time when "electronica" was being rammed down our collective throats despite a lack of actual detectable emotion. Safari put a human voice on electropop, one that all but demanded you fornicate immediately.

Three years later -- after a brief detour in which Godin and his partner in crime, Jean-Benoit Dunckel, provided the achingly mellow yet somehow sensual soundtrack to Sofia Coppola's directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides -- Legend arrived and all but demanded you stockpile Chunky Soup and invest in a rocket launcher. The cooing, starry-eyed guest vocals on Safari ceded to mangled, disembodied robotic choirs. Flirty keyboards and buoyant basslines drowned in a sea of moody prog-rock keyboard jams -- as if Yes had changed its name to Hell, No. A cameo appearance by Beck only further clouded matters. Song titles included "Don't Be Light," "Sex Born Poison," and "Wonder Milky Bitch."

As a whole it was very strange, very menacing, very distinctly French. And it was awesome. It remains so.

Air's fans fled in terror.

They appear to have returned. Air has a new album out, Talkie Walkie, which, while by no means a uniformly warm 'n' fuzzy Safari, will not give young children and Belle and Sebastian fans horrible nightmares. Evidently the intra-band buzzword these days is "sincere," meaning no more stylized cleverness and anonymous robot-sex fantasies.

"We like smart-ass," Nicolas explains in his thick French accent, as elegant and smooth as Inspector Clouseau is not. "But for the first time I wanted it to be very naive. That's why we are on the cover. That's why we use our own voices."

Indeed, there are Nicolas and JB on Talkie Walkie's cover, gazing thoughtfully off into space with math equations scrawled behind them -- very Good Will Hunting. And though Talkie's vocals are often heavily treated and compressed and disembodied, this may be as stripped-down and naive as Air ever gets. Delicate lullabies built around acoustic guitars dominate the album, and the perilously-close-to-smart-ass "Surfing on a Rocket," a jokey little drugged-up teen pop tune with a blatantly phallic imagery-obsessed video, should help rebuild the bridges Legend burned.

It's harder to adore, but much easier to simply enjoy.

And if Air's uneasy and random weirdness thrills you, there's still plenty here to recommend. The way these guys pronounce the phrase "Universal Traveler" alone transforms the tune from a simple bedroom folk piece to an otherworldly Björkian adventure. And "Alpha Beta Gaga," a skittish banjo-and-whistling anthem, sounds like Snow White's "Whistle While You Work" if the original Seven Dwarves were replaced by Creepy, Arty, Chain-Smokey, Leery, Sleazy, Frenchie, and Melodramatic.

For those still skeptical as to the sheer audacious power of Air, the money ball here is "Run," a pleading 4 a.m. hymn built on a quietly percolating space-age coffeemaker beat and anchored by another heavily roboticized vocal chanting Run run run run endlessly during the chorus, as breathy keyboards expand and retract around it like accordion bellows. It's unnerving and over-the-top and quite simply too beautiful to live.

It is awesome, and will remain so.

"We are bored very fast," Nicolas notes, trying to explain Air's abrupt album-to-album shifts in tone and attitude. "We are like kids -- set up some play, and the next day you want to play with something else." The live Air experience offers a grand spectacle all its own (on the Legend tour, it featured pulverizing onstage lighting and several dudes wearing capes), but Nicolas admits touring is only fun until everyone figures out what the next record will sound like. Once they do, they abandon the bus and go make it.

And if touring ever falls by the wayside, Air has a hell of an exit strategy: In addition to the Virgin Suicides soundtrack, the duo also contributed Walkie's graceful closing instrumental, "Alone in Kyoto," to Coppola's second, more celebrated film, Lost in Translation. A healthy career as Oscar winners awaits Nicolas and JB -- they have the wit and style of Danny Elfman but the sweeping grandeur of Ennio Morricone, too.

Plus, soundtrack work is insanely easy. "You just have to describe what you see," Nicolas explains. Lord only knows what these dudes are seeing, but if there's any justice left on this cold earth, five years from now they'll see hundreds of thousands of tastemakers shooting bolt upright in bed, furious with themselves over what they've missed.


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