The Late Night Tales series is a pretty brilliant, yet simple concept, in which artists are asked to curate their own disc of music that influenced them. Fan fans, it’s like getting a mix tape from your favorite band while getting a little peek behind the curtain at what musically makes them who they are. When the series first started, the artists chosen were largely club favorites such as Groove Armada, Fila Brazilia, Howie B and Jamiroquai. However, lately, they have reached out to indie acts such as Belle & Sebastian, psych rockers The Flaming Lips and electronic headscratcher Four Tet. The latest in the series of releases is compiled by the French pop duo Air.
There is probably no better time for Air to sit down and take stock of their musical career than now. While we have to wait until the spring of 2007 for their next highly anticipated full length, the group thus far have much to feel good about. Their unique and distinctly etherial pop resulted in two critically and commerically acclaimed albums, Moon Safari and Talkie Walkie. The band earned further cachet with their soundtrack work for Sophia Coppola on Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation. Even the overly maligned, but disappointing album 10000 Hz Legend showed a creativity and daring most contemporary electronic pop acts simply don’t possess.
There is certain intangible, dreamy quality to Air’s music that almost makes the title of Late Night Tales entirely fitting. On the face of it, the 18-track selection by the duo seems to cut a wide swath across genres, jumping from the improbable (Black Sabbath) to the surprising (The Band) to the obvious (The Cure). Admittedly big fans of the Cure, “All Cats Are Grey”, which kicks off the disc, contains many of the qualities Air would later infuse into their own compositions. Dripping with droning synths, while the percussion ping pongs around your head, the track spends considerable time building up the drama before Robert Smith’s voice enters, haunted and floating above the atmosphere. Indeed, many of the songs chosen feature either a singular vocalist or elaborate atmosphere. The smoky, druggy and tabla saturated haze of Black Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan” recalls some of Air’s own illegally influenced backdrops. But one of Air’s biggest strengths is the fragility of their own particularly styled voices. Thus, it’s not surprising that Cat Power’s wonderfully frail “Metal Heart” and Elliot Smith’s trembling “Let’s Get Lost” are found here. It’s “The Old Man’s Back Again”, a fantastically orchestrated pop strut by Scott Walker, that probably best summarizes Air’s output until now. Visionary, driven, yet accessible and broad enough to reach a wide audience.
However, it’s the inclusion of a few classical works that point the possibility of very interesting future for Air. From Fellini’s Casanova, we get Nino Rota’s intricately baroque “O’Venezia Venaga Venusia”. From Hero, we get Tan Dun’s sweeping and gigantic sounding “For the World”. The soundtrack picks, along with their work with Sophia Coppola, certainly illustrates the duo’s interest in film. Then the closing piece, Ravel’s “Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte”, points to higher songwriting ambitions.
Despite a few missteps (there is no reason for the ironic inclusion of Minnie Riperton’s cutesy “Lovin’ You) and awkward transitions (Ripperton to Tan Dun to the electronic beats of Sebastien Tellici break up an otherwise solid flow), Late Night Tales is a cohesive and thorough exploration of Air’s creative building blocks. And like their best albums, Late Night Tales is also a strong listen from front to back, keeping a consistently, breathy, melacholic and dreamy tone throughout. So turn down the lights, open a bottle of wine and pull a loved one close. Air have you covered.