You’d think that people would’ve had enough of silly lust songs, but not Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin, the French synth-pop duo that records under the completely appropriate moniker Air. Frequently augmented by sexy-breathy female vocalists who coo and sigh along with the pair’s sexy-goofy words and overripe techno symphonies, Air sometimes comes on like that enduring American symbol of French culture, Pepe Le Pew: cartoonish, annoyingly oversexed, and a little malodorous.
But like M Le Pew, Air also has its charms, and on the new 10,000 Hz Legend, the group rubs your nose in most of them. For starters, there’s the de rigueur man-machine concept that, like all good electronica outfits, Air treats as a palimpsest over which it writes at least a few new lines of musical code with each release. The mechanical and seductive album opener, “Electronic Performers” (pronounced “ee-lek-tron-eek pair-for-mers,” natch), exemplifies the band’s approach, serving up a hypnotic guitar figure lifted straight from the heart of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” and made contemporary with slow-beat rhythms and video-game bleeps and whirs. There’s also something in there that sounds like a futuristic washing machine; in the world of tomorrow, doing your laundry will apparently evoke memories of the late but not lamented Alan Parsons Project, whose weirdly frothy “Eye in the Sky” Air could almost certainly record the definitive cover version of. Like Parsons, Dunckel and Godin have a knack for making you wonder if they’re joking.
If “Electronic Performers” is Air’s best-ever slo-mo android anthem, then the “Space Oddity”-esque “How Does It Make You Feel?” is the group’s most absurd alien love song, featuring melodramatically strummed guitars and a cheesy, poorly digitized extraterrestrial who says dopey things such as “I am spacing out with you” and “Let’s have an extended play together” in a hoarse voice that sounds suspiciously similar to Cookie Monster’s. Meanwhile, a lusciously human backing choir repeats the song’s title like a mantra, ultimately setting up the album’s dumbest punch line, which is spoken by the indifferent object of the alien’s affection: “Well,” says a matter-of-fact female robot, “I really think you should quit smoking”which isn’t even a very good funny-once joke, as I’m sure Pepe Le Pew would agree.
Occasional aural pratfalls aside, though, Air mostly indulges its techno-rococo tendencies to dazzling effect. “Don’t Be Light,” for instance, swells up like an overblown movie score at firstbut soon gets Casiofied. And once the fuzz-toned guitar and keyboard atmospherics kick in, the track easily takes best-of-disc honors, though the Beck-hosted “The Vagabond” will probably be the biggest draw for those who know of Air mainly through its hypnotic The Virgin Suicides soundtrack, the follow-up to Moon Safari, the group’s mood-setting debut.
A song that easily could have appeared on either of Beck’s last two albums, “The Vagabond” successfully cross-wires Midnite Vultures’ robo-boho sex-machine antics with Mutations’ bluesy, psychedelicized hippie folk, with Beck putting his patented drawl to especially sexy use. It’s the perfect sound forever, in other words, and, the singer’s harmonica and acoustic-guitar wizardry aside, the track is powered by enough electronic gadgetry to put George Jetson’s fingers in a wicked tangle.
That’s also true of the glossy sonic confection “Caramel Prisoner,” which sounds as if the Air men have been spending a lot of time listening to Vangelis records and taking careful, copious notes. The call-and-response “Lucky and Unhappy,” on the other hand, is more plodding than throbbing, and it sounds like the perfect musical accompaniment for a particularly tedious round of data entry. The would-be-mellifluous “Sex Born Poison” comes with minor-key keyboard textures worthy of a late-night sci-fi feature, but it also features gasping, synthetic percussion that sounds like an air hammer driving rivets into thin sheets of aluminum. And the percolating chant-fest “People in the City” makes it clear that Messrs Dunckel and Godin misspent a substantial part of their French youth listening to the Human League’s Dare, with just a smidgen of Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret thrown in for good measure. It’s just that good.
For all its techno-pop tendencies, though, Air is a surprisingly supple outfit in the studio, fully capable of lacing its robotic rhythms with genuinely sensuous grooves that are just as trance-inducing as the band’s beloved synthesizer drones and kitschy, Dark Side of the Moon-ish sound effects. And when Dunckel and Godin are in a tuneful mood, they even throw in some addictive melodies. “Radio #1” is the disc’s most hummable track, a barroom singalong (in the Star Wars cantina, say) in which Air bites the hand that doesn’t feed in the grand tradition of Elvis Costello’s “Radio Radio” and the Clash’s “Capital Radio.” Well, OK, maybe it’s not that grand. Sloganwise, the best that Air can do is to advise listeners to “Eject musical trash”brave words that, admittedly, sound almost like a dare coming from these two disposable heroes of synth-poppery.
But as lightweight and ephemeral as they often are, Air’s most successful tunes traffic in an ambient/glam-rock hybrid that’s at least as engaging as it is funny. Most of the time, anyway. “Radian,” a flute-driven piece of instrumental lounge pop, swirls sensuously in the direction of a James Bond seduction theme before losing its way amid the group’s requisite synth squiggles and retro-futurist sound effects, suggesting that the line between funny-ha-ha and funny-that’s-enough-now will remain razor-thin well into the new millennium.
But no matter: Some people wanna fill the world with silly lust songs. And when they’re as goofily endearing and sonically adventurous as most of those on 10,000 Hz Legend, what’s wrong with that? CP