Air’s 1998 Moon Safari is the kind of debut that’s almost impossible to live down, or live up to. Like Portishead’s Dummy, released four years earlier, the album not only created a recognizably new, albeit highly derivative aesthetic, it was also the most complete articulation of that aesthetic imaginable. Both Moon Safari and Dummy presented the spectacle of a band sprung fully-formed into a sound they could never hope to escape. While Portishead’s sound was formed from trip-hop, torch songs, and pop-classical movie scores, Air’s far sunnier offering combined the campy lushness of lounge and exotica, Bacharach-inspired harmonies, and the bubbly sounds of French electronica. Six years later, there’s still something irresistible about hearing Moogs cohabiting peacefully with trumpets and computerized beats.
Space-age bachelor-pad music is the best description I can imagine of Air’s music; unfortunately, it’s already the title of an album by Stereolab. But both groups traffic in a kind of retro-futurism, imagining the 21st Century world from a ’70s perspective. Despite the bubble-gum-pop quality of both the sound and the concept, Stereolab is given to a kind of avant-garde, experimental posturing that simply isn’t born out by the music they make(is Bartlett’s use of ‘born out’ correct here?), while Air seems perfectly comfortable not being edgy or profound.
On Air’s new record, Talkie Walkie, the band seems more intent on recapturing the bubbly, optimistic sound of its debut than on 2001’s adventurous, underrated 10,000 Hz Legend. Talkie Walkie is the first record with Air’s two members, Nicolas Godin and JB Dunckel, as the only vocalists, and Dunckel’s unambiguously feminine voice is a pleasant surprise, making much of the record feel like a boy-girl duet. Sonically, the band is relying less on analog synths, and more on acoustic guitars. The opening track, “Venus,” is built around a dramatic piano riff and a hand-clapped beat, sounding almost like a Moby track. “Cherry Blossom Girl”, a seductive, laid-back song with a memorable hook, is probably Air’s best chance for radio airplay since Moon Safari’s “Sexy Boy.” It’s built around a delicate guitar line, and almost sounds like a Sade song until Dunckel comes in with a breathy coo.
Few tracks on Talkie Walkie measure up to these first two, but there are wonderful touches throughout the album, like the whistled melody on “Alpha Beta Gaga,” and the twisted bossa-nova guitar part on “Universal Traveler,” a song that betrays a debt to art-rocker Arto Lindsay. As a general rule, the tracks start beautifully, with a few carefully balanced, delicate components, but soon fade into repetitiveness. This is not really a bad thing; it’s just a reminder that what Air makes is a particularly refined form of background music. Good background music is actually quite difficult to make, as anyone who has ever stepped on an elevator can attest. It needs to create a tangible mood while remaining unobtrusive, but it also must be interesting enough to hold your attention, should you focus on it. Talkie Walkie demonstrates that Godin and Dunckel remain masters of this delicate art.