Among the more pernicious theorems in rock criticism is the one that perpetuates the idea that music fans of integrity and taste must, by definition, feel deeply disdainful of middle-of-the-road sounds. MOR is said to be cheesy, corny, square; it doesn't challenge ethics and mores the way “the great rock music” of our time does, isn't intellectual enough; it doesn't “rock.”
Recently, however, such a killjoy attitude has shown signs of obsolescence among the younger generation of fans, who are even more deeply ingrained with American-TV crap-culture than the boomers of yore. A new pop has emerged, one that acknowledges that pop kitsch is not only what we know about ourselves; it is, to a large degree, what we are. Not only that, but to entertain fantasies – to escape – is a fundamental human need, not a sin.
The album Moon Safari by the French duo Air takes this idea and runs with it. An addictive blend of every mood contained within '70s TV, film and pop – “from Truffaut to blaxploitation to art-rock to Bonanza” would hardly cover it – it was recorded in the band's 18th-century farmhouse-studio in Versailles, half an hour by car from Paris. The studio borders a golf course.
“It's a calm place to make music,” says guitarist-bassist-keyboardist Nicolas Godin. “When we are there, we have all the time we want, and we are in the country. It's cool, and nobody bothers us.”
Godin's Air partner is keyboardist J.B. Dunckel, who is very shy and prefers making pretty music to talking about why he does it. The pretty music of Moon Safari, because it's so pretty, at this time, is provocative. The dreaminess of these songs constantly foils attempts to view them with a knowing smile – quite an accomplishment. They've done it by combining their fondness for '70s culture with painstaking arrangements and textures that one might associate with the Euro prog-rock school, though Godin pooh-poohs such an idea. “In fact, we have a problem with prog, that there is not enough sense of humor. Pink Floyd, which is the most commercial and mainstream prog-rock band, it's always very pretentious. But I'm a big fan of Soft Machine, with the drummer Robert Wyatt.”
Air's “Sexy Boy” is a catchy ditty built around pruriently cute vocal lines and a “heavy” yet oddly blood-drained bass riff; a big hit on the alternative charts the last several months, it was also the recipient of an entirely useless EP of remixes by several trendy stars, including Beck. The band's own setting for the song is clever enough, thanks, and proof that sometimes the things you do the fastest work the best. “We did the composition and recording and vocals and everything in one afternoon,” says Godin.
Claude Debussy, at one point, began billing himself as “Claude Debussy, Musicien Francais” – it seemed important at around the turn of the century that French musicians put an identifiably national stamp on their art. Debussy sounded French – subtle, dexterous, emphasis on both tone color and new structures. Similarly, Air bill themselves as “Air, French Band.” And they do sound very French, though their real inspiration has been drawn from American television shows of the '60s and '70s. They take great pride in the fact that their music is about mood, and blatant escapism.
“It's not that we don't care about politics,” says Godin, “but, for instance, I am a big fan of John Lennon, and so 'Imagine,' I don't care about this song, it doesn't talk to me; but 'Jealous Guy,' I feel very close to that. I'm more interested in feelings than I am in Utopia.”
So, rather than sermonize, Air allow their instruments to convey emotions, often with something wistful, or mystifying, or chillingly beautiful. It's all pure music, somehow – like a stream of pictures.
Nicolas laughs. “The first thing I do when I wake up is to watch TV, and the last thing I do before going to bed is watch TV again. I'm a fan of all the cop shows from the '70s. I'm a big fan of Mike Post [mainstay composer of dopey '70s TV]. The drummer of Starsky and Hutch and The Streets of San Francisco is amazing. And the clavinet, and the Fender Rhodes. And Charlie's Angels – when you are a kid, you are very impressed by these images.” The obvious way to use these images would be to pastiche them with sarcasm, but on Moon Safari the duo has virtually pureed them so finely that the effect is like an encapsulation of a collective dream, and thus a comment of sorts on that dream. Why we have such dreams is another story.
Air play (doesn't sample) a variety of old vintage instruments, like the Fender Rhodes and clavinet, of course, and acoustic piano, Mini Moog, Mellotron, drum, bass, guitars. A distinctive touch on several of the songs is their use of the Vocoder, a device that electronically processes voices, dehumanizes them yet urges us to hear the person trapped inside the metal box. While Godin and Dunckel were reluctant to perform their material live, they've finally agreed to tour, with a six-piece band – four of whom play keyboards, not to simulate the sound of Moon Safari, but to transform it. And when the tour is over, Godin and Dunckel will head straight for Versailles, where they'll hole up and dream.
Says Godin, “We prefer to be in the studio, making music, more than anything else. We like to do closet things.”
Air performs at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater on Thursday, October 15.