When I first heard AIR I was running a DJ record pool that serviced records to some of the coolest house, hip-hop, soul and lounge spinners in New York City.
My first introduction to the band whose acronym stands for “Amour, Imagination, Rêve” (tres francais n’est-ce pas?) was the initial shipment of boxes of their EP “Premiers Symptomes”, a compilation of their earlier singles, followed six months later by their debut album “Moon Safari”.
At this time French electronic music was breaking beyond continental Europe with artists like disco protégés Daft Punk, the king of sophisticated lounge Dimitri from Paris, jazzy hip hop scratcher DJ Cam and the Gallic take on trip hop from The Mighty Bop. However, when I popped AIR onto the turntable for the first time, I was struck by the fine balance of electronic sounds with more traditional acoustic instruments. This was not a mash-up of cleverly sought samples but rather music that was written via more conventional songwriting methods and embellished with vintage keyboards. This meticulous cross-pollination is most palpable on my favourite tune on the record, “All I Need”.
The story of “All I Need” starts with an earlier AIR single “Les Professionels” which is lovely and ethereal but more of a sketch. The bass-line is close to the later reincarnation of the song as is the single string line courtesy of the ARP Solina String Ensemble. There are the other wonderful keyboard sounds such as sound effects from the Minimoog and the gorgeous keyboard mélange of Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer and organ. Although an instrumental “Les Professionels” does have a chorus section and breakdown making me wonder if the boys had always mapped the song as a template for a later version. Although there is a sample of a crowd of people, overall listening to it makes me yearn for a great vocal line et alors, voila. On their debut album AIR deliver.
After the initial Norman Greenbaum “Spirit in the Sky” opening moment (possibly consciously implying the cosmic allusions of which AIR are so fond), I am first struck by how incredibly well recorded is the second coming of the song, now entitled “All I Need”. It sounds sweet! Like their acronym, there is a lot of sonic space as the instrumentation is sparse enough that the song truly breathes. The gentle picking of the guitar sounds pure and intimate and then drifts in the much-desired vocal. The microphones are up close and personal to American chanteuse Beth Hirsch lending an overall intimacy and the breathy backing vocals are particularly beautiful.
This intimacy sounds intentional and when I told a friend that this month’s album was “Moon Safari”, she replied, “Oh, sex music”. The word “sexy” dots many interviews with Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel whether they it is because vintage keyboards are more sexy than computers or that practicing piano etudes each day is a sexual need. My favourite quip is when Godin explained that the reason they were sad to be continuously compared to Pink Floyd is because their music wasn’t sexy.
However, like their space rock counterparts’ “Dark Side of the Moon”, space-pop AIR’s “Moon Safari” appeals on a broad level. It may not have spent 14 years on the charts but it certainly surpassed expectations by reaching number six on the UK Album Charts and it may be because the music is somewhat undemanding. It doesn’t ask too much of its listeners and it not “difficult listening” in any way. It does not dictate heavy themes such as morality and politics but is gentle and fun atmospheric pop that allows listeners to drift in and out. Although there is substance, it is a great example of modern day easy listening, but instead of being “Music to Watch Girls By” it is more like “Music to Watch Clouds By”.
Classic Album Sundays will be playing Air’s Moon Safari in full on an audiophile system including Bowers & Wilkins 802 Diamond loudspeakers:
- London: Sunday 7th July 5 – 8pm, Hanbury Arms, 33 Linton Street, N1 7DU