Wednesday, March 4, 1998

Moon Safari

Posted By on Wed, Mar 4, 1998 at 12:00 AM

French duo Air makes time-warped synthesizer pop so convincingly that the full-length Moon Safari might just as well be a collection of Mooged-out French TV themes and movie sound tracks from the '70s. This is exactly why Moon Safari is easily the year's most refreshing record so far. Like unashamed Euro-popsters St. Etienne and the brighter, shinier Ultramarine, Air-ites Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin approach pop with such a geeky reverence that no melody is too obvious, no hook too clichéd. But where St. Etienne and Ultramarine are both locked snugly into early '90s electronic pop, Air's wonderfully amnesia-stricken sound pretends that disco never left and anything after Burt Bacharach never happened. As such, listening to Moon Safari is like watching a variety show from the '70s -- you enjoy the costumes and sets as much you do the actual show.

Air seems supremely aware of how interchangeable Moon Safari's kitsch and content are, so Dunckel and Godin make them one in the same. Ultra-straight, honey-blond, acoustic space ditties such as "All I Need" (featuring vocalist Beth Hirst) are Portishead minus Portishead's nods toward Flowers in the Attic, bringing the postmodern songwriting circle right back around to sad Karen Carpenter pop. The cheesy mock-machismo of "Sexy Boy," replete with tinny drum machine, FM-fatale chorus, cooing verses and beamingly proud bass line, begs both a video with feathered hair, gold neck chains and a moped -- as well as "single of the year" accolades. Dunckel and Godin gleefully and effectively embrace the realization that the purer the pop, the more transparent it becomes.

But between the synth swoops, grainy electric guitar splotches and roboti-cooing vocoder vocals (implemented to great effect on the impossibly poppy "Kelly Watch the Stars" and the impossibly gorgeous "Remember"), Air shows a brilliant sense of craft underneath the camp. The duo arranges its fromage-pop as shrewdly and completely as Tom Waits' junkyard jazz or Nick Cave's spectral blues. But where those artists struggle to take on a higher literary importance beyond the craftsmanship of their hand-sewn sounds, Air's genius is that it doesn't try to be more than the 45 minutes of irony-free, pure synth-pop ecstasy that it is. This kitschy masterpiece, with its retro sound and timeless melodies, is so weirdly satisfying that the more you hear it, the more comfortable it becomes. Call it the first nonambient, intelligent easy-listening record. Or better yet, just shut up and enjoy it.

Hobey Echlin writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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