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Air needs to freshen live sound

Observer Scene | Monday, April 26, 2004

Electronic music nowadays is characterized by either fast, dynamic big-beat tracks, or a jaded jazzy, lounge-ambient style. Fortunately, this genre has been infused with a fresh breath of AIR, a duo composed of French artists Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel. Playing together since high school, this pair used the time to experiment with 80s sounds, imitating The Cure and other great 80s bands. The band eventually developed a completely unique style, and has since released many albums, each using various and different styles. Part of the charm of Air is that the two artists making up the band do all of their own instrumentation – an unusual trait in the realm of electronica where most artists strictly rely on synthesizers. These guys have fused elements from everywhere to generate their own sound and feeling. They have been influenced by the sophistication of the womanizer and cabaret-master Serge Gainsbourg, as well as the best melodic rock, jazz and bossa nova beats to be heard. In other words, they take the best from the best. Before hitting commercial success, Air released a few singles exclusively in Europe, which became relatively popular among electronica fans. In 1998, they produced their magnum opus, “Moon Safari,” and broke through the international market. This album is amazing from start to finish, transporting the listener from romantic depths to light-hearted fun, from subtle sarcasm to lush, paradisiacal soundscapes. They collaborated with the American Beth Hirsch, who lent her voice in the extraordinary song “All I Need.” After noticing their success, the band’s record label launched an anthology of early singles, called “Premiers Symptomes.” Although a random collection, it feels like an album of its own, due to a solid, jazzy ambience, using wind instruments and various layers of acoustic guitars. In 2000, the duo broke their two-year silence with a brilliant soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s debut film, “The Virgin Suicides.” Air’s use of bittersweet melodies softly blends with gentle sensuality, which proves fundamental to the experience of watching the movie. Godin and Dunckel collaborate with Gordon Tracks in the single “Playground Love,” which is known from its use in various Levi’s commercials. The very next year, the band worked with Beck, releasing “10,000 Hz Legend.” This album was poorly received by fans since it departs from the soft, melodic sound Air had so carefully cultivated in years past. Some, however, feel that perhaps it is simply an underestimated and misinterpreted album.This year, Air came out with “Walkie Talkie,” which is reminiscent of the calm, delightful sound of “Moon Safari.” Yet the guys made a very different album, entirely relying on their own vocals and singing in English for the first time. It contains a few solid songs, but their high-pitched vocals become tiresome if one listens to it in its entirety.Promoting this latest album, Air has been touring the United States and, last week, made a stop in Chicago for the midwestern leg of their tour. The Chicago performance, however, was disappointing, since standards were so high. The pair started out strong, concentrating on their latest work, and displaying an engaging light show that appropriately adorned their music. The musicianship was impeccable without one mistake or screw up. Keeping neatness and coherency in a live show is a virtue without doubt. However, as the show developed, the band progressively extended all the songs in their set, reaching a point where they spread themselves thin. The experience slowly became monotonous, since their improvisation lacked imagination. The beats, rhythms and sound effects dragged on and on, as if they were about to deliver some surprising change to their audience, but only left them with uncomfortable expectation. Another weak point in the performance was that a big chunk of their appeal is found in their studio albums. The use of multiple textures and sound layers is meticulously crafted, but inevitably lost in concert. Additionally, they did all their own singing, which is fine for a 40 minute album, but not for an hour and a half’s worth of show. Maybe Air should have stuck to hiring singers on their albums and performances, since their faithful fans have become accustomed (or spoiled?) to luscious, sonorous voices, not the castrato-type singing that pervaded in the concert. On the other hand, listeners should know what they’re getting themselves into with an unpredictable band like Air. The majority of the crowd definitely enjoyed the show and cheered the band on, even throughout the weakest points. Thus, the opinion and expectations of every concert attendee is different; what is good for one fan may disappoint another.These electronic performers, Godin and Dunckel, make good music, but not for live shows. Listening to them live is a completely different experience: cute, yet trite. One should be warned that what is made in the studio cannot always be re-created on stage – that is one art form Air has yet to master.

Contact Juan Bernal at [email protected]