Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicholas Godin, the two musicians who make up the electronic outfit Air, are a couple of smooth characters who seem to have everything going for them. First of all, they are French. This gives them an automatic aura of cool rebelliousness and class that many of us alienated Yanks can only aspire to in this era of frequent bashing of anything reeking of “Old Europe”. Secondly, they are enormously talented. Their 1998 record Moon Safari was a blessed-out electronic masterpiece oozing a romance and style that immediately cemented their place at the top of the genre, and still managed to attract additional fans from all over the musical landscape. Sofia Coppola commissioned them to write the music to her first film, The Virgin Suicides , elevating their star status even more towards the heavens, and remix enthusiasts worked overtime to splice up and reconfigure their best songs in new and interesting ways. Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, the boys are smart. Unlike many other talented twosomes, Godin and Dunckel have shown a coy candor in interviews that only adds to the mystique of their music and the band’s hip persona. It also doesn’t hurt that they are both wildly good-looking, sporting ruggedly handsome mugs complete with bedroom eyes, good fashion sense and carefully cultivated stubble. While looks alone can not a good band make, it does give them a bit of an aesthetic edge over many of their other digitally-oriented counterparts whose looks tend to dwell somewhere in the range between horribly geeky and borderline yuppie.
However, even with these positive factors working in their favor to make them a seemingly invincible partnership, their new EP of remixes called Surfin’ on a Rocket proves that even these princes of synth-pop can fall on their faces every once in a while. We knew this before, with the 2001 release of their disappointing foray into experimental kitsch, 10,000 Hz Legend. After achieving two album’s worth of critical and commercial success, the boys got restless and decided to stray from their dreamy, spaced-out pop sensibilities in order to try a new more aggressive approach to songwriting. It’s a mistake many bands make once they achieve popularity right away and they don’t know how far they can push the envelope until they end up alienating their fans. They were excused from this tragic oversight however, when they redeemed themselves with this year’s Nigel Godrich produced love fest Talkie Walkie, a collection of graceful yet clever pop songs that fully restored the faith of their disappointed fans. One would think that perhaps they had learned from their mistakes, and wouldn’t sully their discography with another mediocre release. Why can’t perfectly good musicians learn how to leave well enough alone?
No such luck however with the Surfin’ On a Rocket EP, a seven-song collection of remixes of two of the strongest tracks from the Talkie Walkie album (“Surfin’ On a Rocket” and “Alpha Beta Gaga”), as well as a previously unreleased track called “Easy Going Woman” This seems like it would have been a good idea, as these songs are both solid enough to warrant some innovative play. Yet it becomes apparent with the first track that the chemistry that makes these songs work on the Talkie Walkie record is actually a fragile thing that can be erased when it isn’t handled with care.
The first track for example, mixed by Nomo Heroes, trades the syncopated pop of the original song for a slow droning arrangement. The track ends up sounding sluggish and silly without the original’s buoyancy to support its subtly ironic lyrics. Juan Maclean’s treatment of the track is somewhat more attractive, languishing in the song’s dreamy melody. However, the tripped out blips, loops, and claps tend to obscure the song’s catchy tunefulness. The remix by Joakim takes the song in a different direction entirely, transforming it into a full-blown dance track, taking cues from the jangly guitar intro, adding echo-heavy drums, voice distortion, and inserting some cleverly timed instrumental breakdowns.
“Alpha Beta Gaga” does not fare much better. Mark Ronsam tries his best to combine Morricone-influenced whistles with high-pitched cowbells in a breakdown for a hip-hop tune. The song has some spirited moments as Ronsam scrambles to make sense out of a nonsense lyrical centerpiece, but the instrumental version at the close of the album ends up sounding a little less encumbered.
The best moment on the record comes from the unreleased track “Easy Going Woman” sung angelically by Thomas Mars. Mars, a fellow velvet-voiced Frenchy (who has shown similarly atmospheric musical leanings in his soft-rock outfit Phoenix), turns out to be a perfect accomplice to Air’s blessed-out vision. But unfortunately, even the easy grace of this performance is not enough to save the EP, serving only to highlight the heavy-handed treatment of the rest of the songs.