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For half a century, European pop was defined by omission. When all the things that make just-pop—that is, American and sometimes British, but no adjective needed—the world standard are drained away, what’s left is the cheery echo of a sound, minus the impulses that created it.

It’s interesting that rock ‘n’ roll urgency has never been part of the Euromusic landscape, because the democratized activism out of which the best American music grows is a specialty all over that fractured continent—it has known political, economic, and social upheaval on a scale that puts our young, callow country to shame. But because big-picture notions like rockist integrity are limited to intra-musician squabbles, if they are squabbled over at all, debate on the nature and uses of sound hasn’t been a priority for Europe’s individual or collective culture. Revolutionary fervor may have run strong among the youth under Soviet control, but Lady Pank just doesn’t rock; Nina Hagen was and is a cartoon.

Which is not to say the kids aren’t all right over there, no matter how many records Johnny Halliday and Vanessa Paradis sell. They know subversion when they see it—why else was Berlin in the ’80s like, well, Berlin in the ’30s without the Germans? The times were peculiarly suited to the visionary/seditious rantings of so many self-romanticizing, stringy-muscled, English-speaking singers: David Bowie played charismatic visiting royalty in 1978, followed by Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and Nick Cave. Their dark drama flattered Berliners’ rueful edginess under the waning rule of the Wall, and the city’s rapt attention made them cool again back home. Their overseas success rendered them not sad anomalies like a half-assed American rock band championed by Belgians, but true internationalists.

They were also the right selection of artists, since their sounds plugged into existing historical musical forms. In Europe, rock never supplanted the great traditions of cabaret and folk music that predated it; even Kraftwerk skipped rock-making entirely by tapping into a nonmusical vein that might kindly be described as an expression of the German soul. English-speaking acts who made it big over there incorporated their Euro impulses into the home act—Scott Walker covered Jacques Brel; Bowie, bred on Walker and Anthony Newley, stormed the capital of cabaret, and so, in a rawer fashion, did Bowie-bred Iggy; Marc Almond covered Walker’s covers—all manner of mannerist New Wavers making the world safe for “Jacky.”

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The songs were the same whether Cave was wowing them down at an Australian heroin hole or acting up for No. 1 fan Wim Wenders. The only difference was context, and the best Europoppers understand that context is king. If European music has neither fetching foreignness nor down-and-dirty American urgency going for it, all that’s left is its very Europeanness; the wise band embraces its heritage. The loose appellation “techno” has made a new, electronic internationalism possible for European bands smitten by sensibility and bored by language barriers. Techno can no longer be defined as a specific version of dance music; it’s a measure not of resulting sound but manner of process—not what it is, but how it’s made.

Ringing the changes avec “minimoog, glockenspiel, orgue, wurlitzer, Korg MS20, vague moog, melotron”—you get the idea—is the sensationally understated French outfit Air. The act comprises Nicolas Godin and Jean Benoît Dunckel, who write or co-write the tunes and play a number of forgotten unserious instruments; various satellite Airheads assist with hand claps and tuba, and, when the need arises, an American girl is called in pour le “chant.”

Air’s first American release, Moon Safari, may be the most sober expression of synth-based foolishness on any continent, and the most knowing—”French band” reads the type on the cover. The video for the first single, “Sexy Boy,” features characters outlined in a sketchy charcoal that tips a beret directly toward the video pioneering of “Take On Me” by a-ha, the Norwegian New Wave outfit that was laughed at all the way to the bank. When Godin needs to sing, as in the two-line “Remember,” a chilly approximation of a British Invasion single, with haunted-mansion background vocals and a keyboard descant that would not have shamed ? and the Mysterians, he does so through a talk box—better English through technology.

The band’s musical influences are mighty unfashionable on their own, but they re-contextualize cocktail-lounge aural wallpaper and soft pop by executing it via the complex treatment of an even more discredited sound—the spacey thrumming of the first synthesizer experiments that blighted the musical landscape of the early ’70s. The title Moon Safari is no joke: Keyboards ping and suspend, girl voices moan à la Star Trek, every so often a laser gun zaps, and each bass note has the blobby sound of cheap early synths, all of it combined with the masterful precision of the high-tech ironist. “You Make It Easy,” the closest thing here to a real song, is as vague and pretty as a Carpenters tune, sung in English by the smooth, sugary-voiced Beth Hirsch (who also co-wrote), but a repeated chord complicates things with its ominous throb, and “Ce Matin Là” is all horns and swooping-voiced females, très Bachrach.

Air’s literal take on spaciness—Abba meets the Velvet Underground in a galaxy far, far away—harks back to midcentury notions of futurism as concrete as they were fanciful; the possibilities of space exploration were cast as variations on earthly comforts, not the probing threats of modern sky-watchers. (Godin studied physics; in Moon Safari’s world, astronomical coordinates are as real as the harmonica Godin wears.) Air collapses time with the insouciance of the seasoned space cadet: The credits thank designer Agnès B. Some undefinable insistence makes all this dated information sound breathtakingly new. CP