Counterbalance No. 157 Air's 'Moon Safari'

All I need is a little sign to get behind this sun and cast this weight of mine. All I need is the place to find, and there I'll celebrate the 157th most acclaimed album of all time. '90s French electronica pioneers are this week's Counterbalance.


Moon Safari

US Release: 1998-01-16
UK Release: 1998-01-16
Label: Astralwerks

Mendelsohn: Coming of age in the 1990s was great for someone like me because electronic music was really starting to come into its own as a wide variety of artists began to take advantage of the emerging technologies to create new and interesting soundscapes. A few of those artists, your Fatboy Slims (coming in at No. 494 on the Great List) and Mobys (No. 366), even managed to achieve mainstream success. But the group that picked up the most critical acclaim from that time period was the Parisian duo of Air, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunkel, and their 1998 effort Moon Safari.

Now, I think it should be noted that Air is an electronic music duo who doesn't necessarily make electronic music. Listening to Moon Safari, it is quite clear that the electronic elements really aren't the focus of the record. Rather, electronic elements are merged, almost seamlessly, with conventional pop and jazz instrumentation, to create a re-imagined era of 1970s easy listening where robots were used exclusively for vocal duties. When you think about it, this record is really odd, especially considering the 1990s was the decade where the break beat reigned supreme. What do you think, Klinger?

Klinger: Man, I am so relaxed right now I don't even know what to say. This whole record -- it's like a hot bath for my ears. I put it on and after about 30 seconds of "La femme d'argent" my brain just melts into a soft gooey brain-paste of mellowosity. I'm sure that there are other songs throughout Moon Safari that lively up the proceedings somewhat, but frankly by that point my muscles have atrophied and I can hardly move to nod my head, let alone dance or anything. That is the intended effect, right? I'd hate to think I'm doing it wrong.

But I dig what you're saying about the idea that this music is a good bit more organic than one might think. There are of course major elements of jazz at play here, although it's jazz of a decidedly post-Bitches Brew bent. And I am frequently put in the mind of other late 1960s/early '70s touchstones throughout the album -- John Barry movie soundtracks, TV variety show arrangements, etc. Curiously, I don't have any particular fondness for any of those things, but somehow when they come together here I am for whatever reason unirritated. Why do you reckon that is, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: It's hard to be irritated by the music of Air -- I find it unnerving after a while but I never leave irritated. There is nothing jarring, there is no overt bombast and everything is pleasant. Even when they pick up the pace and make the robots sing a little harder on songs like "Sexy Boy" or "Kelly Watch the Stars", there is still a decidedly laid back vibe. It's also hard to be annoyed at Air's fictionalized re-imagining of the musical past, as they take all the good bits, the great arrangements, funny pop turns and jazzy meandering and create something decidedly new, yet immediately recognizable.

While Air did lift a great deal of material out of those old movie soundtracks, 70s jazz and easy listening and TV arrangements, it was the music of Serge Gainsbourg, a fellow Frenchman and profferer of laid back cool, that Godin and Dunkel find most of their inspiration. The bulk of Moon Safari is just a combination of Gainsbourg and old-school, psychedelic electronic, the most notable proponent of which might be Vangelis. Go listen to some Gainsbourg then put on the Blade Runner soundtrack. If you were to somehow combine both of those records, you would get Moon Safari.

Klinger: OK, so it's a big soothing amalgam of a lot of things that, by 1998, mainstream types had long ago lost interest in. I'm with you on all of that. There was a lot of that going around in the '90s. We talked about that a lot back when we were discussing Beck's Odelay. And I like that aspect of that decade—come to think of it, it's one of the few things I like about those years. As it happens, I also find myself enjoying those moments when the Air guys let the robots take five and hand the mic over to Beth Hirsch. "You Make It Easy" and "All I Need" have a certain sultry something that invariably starts to pull me out of my opioid haze.

But what is it about Moon Safari that has placed the album here on the Great List? It appears that this record did remarkably well in a lot of end-of-the-year lists, even here in the US, but do you think it's still as highly regarded these days? I could be making unfair assumptions, but I get the feeling that the electronic genres are a bit more fickle than others, with a tendency to see things as passé rather than classic. Am I wrong there? And if not, does Air transcend all that?

Mendelsohn: Honestly, I think only time will tell. Air stands out in the 1990s as something different. Moon Safari was electronica that you could enjoy without the club, very much along the lines of Massive Attack's Blue Lines. At the same time, Air was doing something completely different from every other electronic artist. The rave culture was huge in the 1990s. House, trance and especially break beat, fueled by samplers and drum machines, were the modus operandi of the era, and most of popular electronic music was an update of the break beat, early house scenes that came out of the 1980s. Air was composing organic electronica, focusing on the arrangements and writing actual pop music by taking elements from much further back and weaving them onto the tapestry of the ever-evolving electronic music scene.

We are at that point in the list where many of these records could move up or down significantly as time passes and tastes change. So I wouldn't be surprised if Moon Safari drops but it is where it is on the Great List because of how well it did in the 1990s and how well it set itself apart from the rest of the pack, especially considering how diverse 1998 was when it came to music. The top three albums from 1998 were Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Air's Moon Safari and Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. What's even more surprising is just how well electronica was received in 1998. In the top 25 from that year there are no fewer than seven records that are electronic or heavily based on electronic music. Air carved out a niche both in 1998 and on the Great List by thinking differently about not only electronic composition but music in general.

Klinger: OK, I was right there with you until the very end of your analysis. I just can't wrap my head around the idea that Moon Safari, as pleasant and likeable as it is, is offering up a different way of thinking about music in general. Is there something here I'm not grasping? There were plenty of artists who were repurposing old sounds to create something new -- in fact, we've already covered several good examples, from the Beastie Boys to Portishead. That sifting through the detritus of earlier ages became a key ingredient of '90s culture, and by the time the decade was out it felt pretty well worn out. I do appreciate that Air's appropriations were a good bit more subtle than many. I can see where that would have an impact.

I can see that Air offers up a much warmer version of electronic music than we've typically heard. My take on trip-hop and other forms has always been how cold and sterile it all seems (which is why for years my brain automatically imagined German automobile commercials whenever I heard electronica-type stuff), and Moon Safari somehow brings an soft-light, analog feel to the proceedings. Is that enough to consider it a breakthrough? (And I hate to be asking you so many questions, but I'm still trying to place the elements of this era in a context that's meaningful to me, especially because I was already feeling too old for it while it was going on.)

Mendelsohn: The thing that sets Air apart was their approach to making electronic music. The electronic groups we've encountered thus far on the Great List—Massive Attack, Kraftwerk, DJ Shadow—were either sample-driven or synth driven. Air used both synths and samples but neither acted as the crux of the music they were making. Electronics were no longer the tool that was used to make the music, but rather just another instrument, like, say, a tuba. I may be splitting hairs but I think it's an important distinction and one that see's Air pushing music forward in a very interesting way.

Plus, as you noted, a lot of electronica tended to come across as cold, dour, mood music. Air brought a little bit of lightness to the proceedings. It no longer sounds that refreshing since it's been done to death but at one point it was new and innovative.

Klinger: I get it, man. I get it. And I'm not just saying that because I can't seem to move under my own power. It's groovy, man. All so groovy…

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

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