There is no better way to describe Air than with the words that open “10,000 Hz Legend,” their last record: “We are electronic performers.” Combining the instrumental majesty of Sigur Ros with the sleaze of ’80s love songs, Air has managed to invent a brand of music — just as fellow-Europeans Bjork and Aphex Twin have — that walks a dangerously thin line between gorgeous and annoying. Though most of their fans consider them to have gone downhill since their debut, “LP Moon Safari” (including the record-store employee who sold me their new record), Air’s songs have been getting better and better. Unfortunately, their last three records — the soundtrack to Sophia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” included — have been inconsistent and full of filler material. “Talkie Walkie” is the first record since their debut to hold together as an entire album, and better yet, boasts more flat-out memorable songs than any of their albums to date.
The first thing that struck me about the record was the guitar, partially because it seems to be the only natural instrument (even the voices seem synthesized) but also because it’s played so goddamn well. “Venus,” “Mike Mills” and “Alone In Kyoto” — which is played during the opening of “Lost in Translation” — are all built around elegantly finger-picked acoustic guitars. By the end of each song, synthesizers seize control, which doesn’t necessarily take anything away from them: their warped melodies sound as if they were lifted from Philip Glass, and the instruments that Air creates to play the melodies suit the songs perfectly.
On this mostly-electronic album, it’s hard to draw a line between composition and production, so it’s difficult to gauge the effect that Nigel Godrich (who also produces Radiohead and Beck) has on its sound. The opening seconds of “Run,” one of the album’s weaker songs, sound eerily similar to the intro to “Kid A,” and has similarly distorted lead-vocals. Air doesn’t have Thom Yorke as their front-man though, and indeed the singing and lyricism on the album are its weakest points. Thankfully, the instrumentation and percussion make up for it. Two minutes and 21 seconds into “Surfing on a Rocket,” for instance, is a 7-second long drum break that is as heartbreaking as anything from Aphex Twin’s glitched-out masterpiece “Selected Ambient Works 85-92”.
If Air can be accused of ripping anybody off, however, it would be themselves; the album’s greatest shortcoming (and, I guess, it’s greatest asset) is that it sounds too much like “Moon Safari”. But while both albums are equally ambient — perfect for reading to, or making love to your old lady by — the individual songs on “Talkie Walkie” are undeniably stronger. On some of the tunes, granted, the monotony of Air’s melodies become a little annoying, though the density of their sound is so engaging that there’s always something different to listen to. For instance, “Alpha Beta Gaga,” which is built around the same riff repeated throughout the entire song, is saved by its alluring whistled tune, simultaneously played on saccharine-soaked strings. Half-way through, a (synthesized) banjo drops in and moments later the whistle and strings drop out and the finest banjo-solo since the opening of Grandaddy’s “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot” ensues.
Unlike any of their previous albums, “Talkie Walkie” is entertaining in a way that their earlier albums just weren’t. Without sacrificing the ambience that makes their music so fit for film soundtracks, the songs on this album transcend almost everything but a handful of tunes.
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