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Wednesday, 14 March 2007 00:00

Air skillfully paints a delicate soundscape

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What exactly do you say about these guys?

There’s certainly something nostalgic in just how painfully arty what they’re doing is — like the old Sylvian and Gabriel stuff. But then there’s that slick, ultramodern sheen to the music, the lush backdrops of synth against the “water drops in a cavern” digital rhythms.

 

The surprising vignettes of Eastern instrumentation add even more spice to an already potent sonic concoction, and though unrepentantly mellow with a capital M, Pocket Symphony never completely deteriorates into the aural equivalent of watching paint dry, and that’s pretty much a compliment coming from someone that typically avoids “electronic” music like the proverbial plague.

So, let’s just put it like this: the album is brilliant, but sounds a bit like it’s taking itself much too seriously. But hey, they’re European. They can’t help themselves — it’s genetic.

Now, there are good aspects to such measured self-awareness, one being the astounding sonics of Pocket Symphony. Whether strummed, plucked or entered via mouse or keyboard, every note is deep and clear as a bell. The acoustic guitars crackle with an “inches from your face” intimacy. And while there are plenty of hypnotic, repetitive figures providing the framework, the arrangements themselves offer enough depth and thematic development that you rarely feel like skipping ahead to the “good part.”

JB Dunckel may not like to throw more than a handful of lyrics at you per song, but listening to how cautiously a tune like “Once Upon A Time” builds, how each successive chorus and verse adds something that turns your ear, you can live with the occasionally shallow word count.

Though nearly all the instrumentation and vocals are handled by Dunckel and bandmate Nicolas Godin, there are a few guests here and there: Jarvis Cocker, ex of Pulp, appears on “One Hell Of A Party,” filling his lines with a fittingly weary, disconnected delivery that contrasts the sing-song, sometimes feminine quality of Dunckel’s vocals. Godin’s guitar and voice carries the majority of “Left Bank,” one of the most accessible — and stripped down — songs on the CD. Cocker appears again on the ominous “Somewhere Between Waking And Sleeping,” which maintains a gorgeous sense of mood and space despite the river Styx imagery.

Air’s instrumental skills are apparent in the works that bookend and divide Pocket Symphony into its “movements.” Describing these pieces as having a “soundtrack” quality really isn’t any sort of stretch, considering the amount of work Air has done in that field. From the off kilter drama of “Lost Message” to the, well, dreamy ripple of closer “Night Sight,” the key to these songs is that they just barely build to a simmer — they never give in to boiling over.

The best of the group is “Mayfair Song,” which never lets you get too comfortable before tossing out some tiny creak or skewed harmony that urges you to take a glance over your shoulder every now and again, lest you be caught off guard when the tension finally peaks.

Pocket Symphony doesn’t give up its gifts too easily. For a duo this skilled at making beautiful, if shallow, music, the songs and mood here imply that there may be much more to the picture than just pretty noise. Though the whole thing goes down quite easily in its fifty or so minutes, you don’t walk away feeling like you really heard everything Godin and Dunckel packed into these tracks. In this respect, Pocket Symphony demands something a little rare in the electronic pop realm — repeated listening.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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