AIR Moon Safari (Source)

Air ("French band", says their logo helpfully) are the duo whose contribution to Etienne De Crecy’s "Super Discount" compilation (raved about below) was one of that album’s highlights, and whom you may have heard enlivening the stagnant waters of the torpid top 40 with their "Sexy Boy" single.

"Moon Safari" is, I believe, Air’s debut album proper, and as such they seem to have intended to cover as many bases as possible in the space of two sides of vinyl (and in doing so make the briefest dance album the world has seen since the Aphex Twin’s 33-minute "Richard D James Album" opus) - Roni Size, Goldie and others fond of four-album-plus releases take note. Unfortunately all this means that "Moon Safari" is only sporadically interesting, and at its considerable best when being unselfconsciously instrumental, such as the opening track "La Femme D’Argent", a Moog groove so effortlessly relaxed, stylish and 1972 that you expect Miles Davis to start parping along at any moment. "New Star In The Sky" could be a softer-focused version of Blur’s similarly celestial "Strange News From Another Star".

That "Super Discount" tune, "Solidissimo", appears here as "All I Need", reconstructed with vocal support from the very Beth Orton-like Beth Hirsch, and unfortunately much of the lazy, stretched-out charm of the original has been lost in the process. It’s as if Air were trying to make a dance album for people who wouldn’t normally buy that kind of thing: all the usual dance or ambient conventions seem to have been chucked, or at least compressed into the confines of a four-minute (radio friendly) song. In doing so the sense of relaxation, of allowing the music to gradually build and subside, has been ditched in an attempt to hook the gnat-like attention span of yer average single buyer.

Another complaint that could justifiably be levelled at "Moon Safari" is that it’s almost post-ironic: it’s all good and well to chuckle at stuff like Mike Flowers, safe in the knowledge that it’s/he’s all a merrie jest, but it seems at times as if Air are actually ‘gently mocking’ the whole easy listening revival crowd (is it still hip, even?) rather than the source material. There’s being clever and being clever-clever, and sometimes Air swing disarmingly towards the latter, swathing tracks with Jeff Lynne-like vocoderisms ("Sexy Boy", "Kelly Watch The Stars") or ripping off the drum track from The Beach Boys’ "Do It Again" ("Remember").

"Moon Safari" is not a bad album, in fact it’s an entertaining and diverting listen. It’s just unfortunate that other Air material I’ve heard suggests that "Moon Safari" might also be the product of deliberate commercial compromise, to the detriment of what this band can do very, very well.

AIR Premiers Symptomes (Source)

"Premiers Symptomes" is a reissue of what was originally an import-only mini-album collating a smattering of the French duo's pre-"Moon Safari" output. Its official release sees the five tracks augmented by two additional ones, "Californie" and "Brakes On", but still doesn't take the length of the album anywhere near the 40-minute barrier.

The music contained on "Premiers Symptomes" is thankfully much more organic and less (if at all) blatantly radio-friendly than their corrupted debut album proper, but unfortunately that fails to make it any more interesting, most of the album suffering from rambling self-indulgence, suggesting that what they really need is a stern producer/remixer to reign in their loops of excess. What's all the more galling, especially in the light of the album's lightweight running time, is that further obscure gems, such as Beck's fantastic remix of "Sexy Boy" or D Whitaker's string-smothered version of "Remember" weren't given a wider airing here.

There are moments of goodness on "Premiers Symptomes", though. The Archetypal Air Tune - hear Etienne De Crecy's remix of "Solidissimo (Super Sale)" on his "Super Discount" project, or "All I Need" on "Moon Safari", for further details - crops up yet again on "Les Professionnels", and "Le Soleil Est Pres De Moi" is unarguably lovely. But as an album is adds up to rather less than we might have dared expect, being thin, undernourished and lacking in substance.

AIR Original Motion Picture Score For The Virgin Suicides (Record Makers/Source/Virgin)

Air further defer the arrival of their second album proper with the release of their soundtrack to the Sofia Coppola film "The Virgin Suicides", and, against some considerable odds, it’s actually rather fine.

The first Air song I ever heard was their contribution to Etienne De Crecy's wonderful "Super Discount" French disko compilation, "Solidissimo (Super Sale)", and I was smitten, all swooning synths, chiming acoustic guitar, lustrous melody and faded melancholy. Since then, everything I've heard by the band, including the entirety of the "Moon Safari" and "Premiers Symptomes", has been a bitter disappointment. For all their love of 60s pop and 70s machinery they seemed unable to make music without smothering it under a kitsch, ironic fog, as if they spent their days standing over the mixing desk, fingers locked into little quotation signs.

On this album, however, something has happened, something that manages to overcome the usual soundtrack pitfalls of fragmentation and repetition. For the first time since that "Super Discount" track, their music sounds as if it can be appreciated without the accompaniment of a knowing, post-modern nudge and wink. Instead of making an album that sounds like it's attracted to the idea of the 1970s, but only in a sort of so-bad-it's-hilarious student disco fashion, parts of "The Virgin Suicides" could easily have snuck out from that decade. There are so many new elements to Air's instrumental armoury here, nudging out the expected barrage of Moogs, Fender Rhodes pianos and vocoders: there's real drums, saxophones, some percussive, pummelling piano parts, lots of spooky, gothic church organ, proper singing and snatches of dialogue that turn proceedings agreeably Godspeed You Black Emperor!-shaped.

A small victory, perhaps, but an important one: Air have broadened their horizons significantly, and, although, fine as it is, "The Virgin Suicides" still doesn't qualify as essential listening, if they build on the lessons learned herein their next album might well be.

AIR 10 000 Hz Legend (Source/Virgin)

In the two years since their fluffy ambient Franglais debut "Moon Safari" became the coffee table accessory of choice, Air have goaded their fanbase with the necessary mopping-up exercise "Premiers Symptomes", which rounded up a goodly stack of their pre-fame releases, and their eloquent soundtrack to "The Virgin Suicides", which opened up interesting new directions to a novelty music that seemed to be cursed with a short shelf-life. And before the release of their second album proper, rumours abounded that the French duo's music was about to lurch in a more, uh, progressive direction, compounded by the cover illustration that fronts "10 000 Hz Legend", which suggests a familiarity with Yes' late-70s work circa "Going For The One" and "Tormato". Unfortunately, or fortunately, the music contained within is less of a seismic shift from what has gone before than those rumours might suggest. Certainly the new century model Air sounds a lot sharper than the old version - the album's title is apparently an allusion to the fact that the band regarded "Moon Safari" as woefully lacking in high frequencies due to the dead acoustic of the studio used - with clean, well-defined lines where once they settled for flowery, rose-tinted nostalgia. There are moments that suggest a huge infusion of peak-period Kraftwerk: opening track "Electronic Performers" sounds as if it could have been written by the German band's dummy doubles, a description of both the recording process and the "we play the machines/the machines play us" dichotomy. Beck, previously responsible for remixing the lazy, loathsome "Sexy Boy" into something worth listening to, turns up to do his country honk hobo thing on "Vagabond", whilst "Radian" is as close as Air have approached to a genuinely soulful and pretty instrumental. On the other hand "Radio #1" suggests that the duo haven't shed their affinity for a cheap gimmick, witness the witless effect of having a DJ pretend to sing over the outro, dragging an unspectacular song even further into the mire.

"10 000 Hz Legend" is an undoubted improvement on its predecessor proper, and documents the band experimenting in new and interesting ways. But once again it appears that Air have reneged on a promise: just as they turned the frail wistfulness of their "Super Discount" submission into the lumpen lowest-common-denominator muzak of "Moon Safari", the questing, arch restlessness of "The Virgin Suicides" has become homogenised into the saleable, gimmicky aesthetic of this thing here. For all the praise that's been heaped upon "10 000 Hz Legend" elsewhere, I can't help but feel betrayed.

AIR Talkie Walkie (Source/Virgin)

"Talkie Walkie" is Air's third proper studio album, if such extracurricular projects such as remix collections, film soundtracks, early singles compilations and spoken word collaborations are filtered out. Following the kitschy fromage of "Moon Safari" - the ultimate background music for piloting a Volkswagen camper to the stars with a loot of elderly synthesisers in back, perhaps, but a little too referential for everyday listening - and the mild prog indigestion of the famous friend-addled "10 000 Hz Legend", this is Air stripped down to their essential elements: sighing electronics, slightly ponderous tunes and yearning, sci-fi lyrics.

The processed electronic handclap rhythm of "Venus" is straight outta Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark's "The Romance Of The Telescope", and "Run" is decorated with breathy choral parts and the inevitable vocoder. "Universal Traveler" is a kind of aural footspa (or analogue bubblebath, perhaps), frothy and pleasant but hardly memorable, whilst "Mike Mills" is an instrumental chamber toccata that namechecks the R.E.M. bassist for no easily discernible reason. The album closes on their contribution to Sofia Coppola's wondrous film "Lost In Translation", "Alone In Kyoto", a gently evocative morsel of exquisite ear candy.

Cleansing the palate like a serving of lightly fragranced sorbet, "Talkie Walkie" may well be Air's finest long player yet. But nominating it as such says rather more about the way the duo have consistently fallen short of delivering on their considerable promise than the excellence or otherwise of the album itself - certainly nothing here is fit to cast a shadow on "Solidissimo", their contribution to Etienne De Crecy's epochal French disko compilation "Super Discount". Consistently cosseting as it may be, it would have to be a very slow news week for "Talkie Walkie" to change your life to any extent.

Super Discount