[17 April 2008]
Ten years later on, there’s still no album that sounds quite like Moon Safari. It is as evocatively light and dulcet as its namesake, alarmingly sensual, profoundly kitsch, and singularly beautiful. Air’s breakthrough masterwork gets the deluxe treatment for its 10th birthday. That amounts to three CDs, including the original master, a long player of bonus material, and a DVD of Air-related material directed by Mike Mills (Thumbsucker), including the documentary Eating, Sleeping, Waiting & Playing.
Upon its release in 1998, it seemed certain that there would be droves of imitators following in the billowing smoke of Air’s hazy wake. And yes, there were plenty waiting in line in the waning days of endless chillout room compilations, but none could ever grasp the same pan-stylistic sonic portmanteau that Air’s Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel molded in their colossal proto-prog, moog-lounge, plastech soul jazztronica. Even Air themselves never attempted to repeat their definitive moment, for better (2004’s Talkie Walkie) or worse (2001’s 10,000 Hz Legend).
Yet Moon Safari, as atypical and retro-gazing as it was, came about as a product of its era. The world was ablaze with kitsch sampledelia hot off the critical fawning over the Salvation Army eclecticism of Beck’s Odelay. Soon, the music press was discovering, uncovering, and lofting adoration upon Stereolab, Cibo Matto, Cornershop, Fantastic Plastic Machine, Thievery Corporation, etc. Indie-pop’s obsessions began to converge with the dance community’s, and vice versa. The music of the past was beginning to take on a new light and the new French band Air were more than willing to shoot an ironic wink towards the dusty spindles of music’s former space age bachelor pads in pursuit of its melodic treasure map.
However, the French “band à part” were set apart by their recalcitrant resistance to the authority of the breakbeat, the gold standard of ‘90s music. The drums of Moon Safari are commendably unfunky, and often so minimal as to be practically utilitarian and metronomic alone, as they often were for their spiritual forefathers in Kraftwerk.
Those Teutonic pioneers are commonly mentioned in the same breath with Dunckel and Godin, and perhaps there’s a good reason for that. Both artists are interested in extracting warmth from machinery, but Kraftwerk’s clangor arose as a reaction to German Post-War reconstruction and the possibilities it presented. It was also a pre-punk counteraction to the communal vibe of the naturalist, commune-based hippy music being made by their psychedelic peers, a taut and perfectionist exercise in absolute studiousness.
Air’s music, on the other hand, came about during the height of commercial culture, as pop began to eat itself, when the new architecture was to build anew from the trash heap of yesteryear. 1998 was a time that couldn’t even conceive a return to nature without looking like a John Zerzan/Ted Kaczynski-style lunatic. The primitivism that supercharges today’s freak-folk movement was beyond fringe for the newly interconnected global village. It was passé. Air, then, had no need for the Kling-Klang, but they were equally as fascinated by Florian Schneider’s flute on Ralf and Florian as they were by his synthesizer on Radio-Activity. They felt equally thrilled by the sensual strings of Isaac Hayes and Serge Gainsbourg as by the deep chord sinusoidal keytars of ELO.
For all their allusive ties to the day’s reigning hipster cognoscenti, Air, unlike their peers, always felt oddly comfortable on the girls’ shelves in The Virgin Suicides alongside Todd Rundgren, 10CC, and Styx. Their score for that film, though hardly their most consistent work, seemed nevertheless appropriate because Moon Safari had such a dull AM radio sheen to it, such as when “Ce Matin La” flexed its day-glo Ibiza warm pads beneath Burt Bacharach-style trumpets. Beyond the already pejorative chillout, Air’s music could justifiably be classified as something far more egregious: soft rock. Easy listening. Certainly intended more for space cadets than yuppies, Air’s music is vivacious, dynamic, and weird, but so mellow that you’d need to fill up a room with pillows and valium to bring yourself down to its level.
Album opener “La Femme D’Argent” is so floaty and mysterious that you hardly notice the sugary organs tripping out to where the sidewalk ends. After chutes of starry piano, distant moans, and persistently cool basslines bring you to the eclipse of consciousness, the tempo switches up a few BPMs with some precipitating cymbal taps whose mild torrent seems to promise a highly theatrical and bombastic finale to the tension. But rather than crescendoing into an M83-style burst of energy, Air seamlessly wind the song back down to just the main melody and a series of hand claps and finger snaps. It’s miraculous that they can get away with such a mood shift, but they do, amicably. Such is the mellifluous majesty of Air.
“La Femme D’Argent” and its lack of climax gives way to the dark electro-ribbits of Air’s most well known song, “Sexy Boy”, a minor hit in Europe that even received some airplay from MTV around that time, back when they were known to play music videos in their regular programming. In the documentary included on the DVD, Godin reveals that he wanted “Sexy Boy” to elicit the same kind of disorienting sensation as the one brought on by the appearance of the man from another place in Twin Peaks. To Air’s credit, it is a demented pop nugget, equally homoerotic and androgynous, menacing and erogenous. “Sexy Boy” alternates between light, feminine, amorous verses and a dark, gently brutal, faux-masculine chorus. Like all of Moon Safari‘s vocal tracks not sung by Beth Hirsch, “Sexy Boy” is delightfully transgender, transcending sexual boundaries by being tantalizingly alien, appealing to GLBTQ, hetero, and beyond.
Likewise, “Talisman” is undeniably seductive, but perilous as well. It’s like Jerry Goldsmith conducting the Love Unlimited Orchestra. Its atmosphere is perhaps best exemplified by its inclusion in Doug Liman’s Go. As a tantric three-way gradually builds steam, the room literally ignites around them and fire envelopes the scenery. Air tactfully place wild slides and howling synths in the backdrop as if to subtly sound the alarm. It’s love under duress, but passion that simply can not be bridled.
The bonus CD, if anything, augments why Moon Safari‘s tracks are so good by providing counter arguments to the original arrangements. Consisting mostly of a series of alternate takes, it almost functions as a covers record performed by Air themselves, who radically realign their songs in interesting, though never strengthening ways.
The only truly essential track is the Moog Cookbook remix of “Kelly Watch the Stars”, which is a rollicking slice of astrofunk culled from the heavens. I’ve been in love with the song ever since I first heard it nine years ago on the Soundtrack to Gregg Araki’s Splendor. It’s so good that part of me half-wishes Air would quit their day jobs and join up with the boys from Moog Cookbook to create the most celestial boogie album ever recorded. Better still, they should have foregone the featured bonus disc included and done a whole album of retoolings by Moog Cookbook entitled Moog Safari.
The rest of the disc isn’t bad, but it will mainly be of interest to hardcore fans or obsessive collectors of Airaphenalia. And at only 42 minutes, it’s bizarre that the band didn’t include its single great b-side of the era, “Jeanne”, a collaboration with French pop star Francoise Hardy.
The two other versions of “Kelly Watch the Stars” included are demonstrations in how pitch perfect the album version’s tempo is. Alternately slower and faster takes add new verses and bridges with the same single-line lyric sheet, but cannot match the minimalist cosmic aura of the Moon Safari version. “Remember (David Whitaker version)” takes out all the percussion layers and substitutes gooey romantic strings, which has the effect of Disneyfying it 20 percent. Hey, if Perrey-Kingsley’s “Baroque Hoedown” can be used as the Main Street Electrical Parade theme at Disney World, maybe they’ll start playing “Remember” when the fireworks go off in ten years. I could think of worse fates for the song.
Speaking of those French electropop frontiersmen, the previously unreleased “Mardouk” features feisty electric guitars and go-go moogs straight out of Perrey-Kingsley’s The In Sound from Way Out. It’s a far-out look at just how retro-cheeky and loose the band can get when it lets loose its rested laurels. Though fun, the deviation exhibits more than anything why Air chose not to be a dance-rock band. Another new one called “Bossa 96” is deceptively titled. It’s actually just a demo version of “You Make it Easy”, only here sounding like it was written by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Thank God it wasn’t.
The DVD, unfortunately, is even more superfluous than the bonus disc, especially the documentary, which plays more like home movie footage than any kind of real tour documentary. Interspersed between the footage of band members hanging out or performing is a series of interviews in which a load of idiots, most of whom are not even fans of the band, prattle on in response to non-sequitur questions like “What does music mean to you?” and “Do you like McDonald’s?” Perhaps to be artsy, or perhaps because Mills gets bored easily, the camera often pans to the side before they can even finish their answers. Oddly enough, of the action verbs in the title Eating, Sleeping, Waiting & Playing, playing is perhaps the most seldom seen.
The only worthwhile footage is the rare shot of Godin and Dunckel, who are stricken with equally asinine questions from the music press. Their retaliatory facial expressions reveal more in winces and grimaces than the rest of the hour-long road pic combined. Mills attempts to build in a bit of tension with a climactic homecoming gig and shots of the band reading negative (and positive) reviews of their music, but Godin and Dunckel are icy cool cats whose tour mellow neatly mirrors their album personas.
Included as well are the Moon Safari music videos, which always seemed more like graphic design exercises than real videos, and an out-of date discography. As the strength of the first and perhaps only necessary disc of this set can attest, even after as short a period as ten years, Air deserve a little better.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/air-moon-safari/