French duo Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin exude a chic electronic ambiance, chillier than a mid-winter windstorm. So it should come as no surprise that latest effort Pocket Symphony is a faithful continuation of the group’s aesthetically atmospheric leanings. As they have demonstrated in the past, Air makes mood music, that mood being either a: sexy, b: soothing, or c: both.
Pocket Symphony is an obvious enough title, as it suggests the multitude of instrumentation found within. Piano, not keyboard, takes center stage on many of the tracks, which are abetted with glockenspiel, acoustic guitar, violins, and even Far Eastern classical instruments like the koto and shamisen. Where Talkie Walkie fully embraced the electronic aspect of Air’s creativity, Pocket Symphony digs deep for the organic. The result is a strange hybrid that achieves mixed results. Like contemporaries Zero 7, Air employs robust acoustic tones overlapping the synthesized, and, while not necessarily breaking new ground, have pushed the limits of this intricate cross-breeding experiment to yield one easy-listening bastard (of an album).
“Space Maker” is the drawn curtain, the dark screen before the movie starts. The audience anticipates in silence as the music builds, slowly, first an acoustic guitar and piano melding into something more grandiose altogether, in the form of synthesizers and vibraphone. This opening track reconciles the natural world with its mechanized counterpart, as the different shades of sound coalesce into a vibrant soundtrack. From such an auspicious beginning, it’s on to “Once Upon A Time,” riding a vigorous piano riff over flute, chiming glockenspiel and shamisen. The lonesome musings of “Left Bank” pair beautifully with picked acoustic guitar while the synthesizer bubbles in the background. As on this track and throughout, the digital more often accompanies or takes second stage to more traditional instrumentation.
That is of course with the exception of the Thievery Corporation-meets-Mirwais synthetic waves of “Mer Du Japon,” a standout among the album’s otherwise laid-back offerings. Amidst lush production and the just-plain-cool pairing of koto and piano, Dunckel coos the song’s only vocal line: “Je perds la raison dans la mer du japon (I lost my mind in the Sea of Japan),” and threatens to pull the listener out with the digital tide. Two collaborations, “One Hell Of A Party” with Jarvis Cocker, and
“Somewhere Between Waking And Sleeping” with Neil Hannon, seem almost dull by comparison, proving that the French duo fare better when they are in full creative control. The instrumental “Night Sight” signals the rolling credits, as a simple, warm Rhodes progression weaves with synthesizer textures.
Reaching the end of Pocket Symphony, one has the sense of its true therapeutic potential. Tensions seem to vanish, stress is relieved, and a certain calming breeze brushes against the inner ear, leaving a smile on your face. Air whispers a promise of relaxation, delivered in full in the form of gentle acoustic guitar, somber piano and soothing synthesizer drone. All you have to do is breathe it in.
Thievery Corporation – The Mirror Conspiracy
Zero 7 – Simple Things
Engineers – Engineers