Friday, June 19, 2009

June 19: Air, "Moon Safari"

Artist: Air
Album: Moon Safari
Year: 1998
Label: Astralwerks

There was a time when the terms "ambient," "downbeat techno," "trip hop," "chillout" and a number of other terms were all interchangeable when discussing techno-based, slower electronic music. The reason for this was mainly that, because the style was so young, few seminal albums existed to help differentiate between the sub-styles. As the 1990's came to a close, groups like Massive Attack, Fila Brazilla, and Biosphere began to help define the different styles that all fell under the category of "downbeat techno." Taking as much from Pink Floyd as they did from the Beach Boys, French duo, Air, presented the blueprint for what has become the "chillout" segment within the wide range of sub-genres. Creating blissful moods with a combination of live instrumentation and synthesizers, their debut LP, 1998's Moon Safari, remains the benchmark by which all other records of the genre are measured.

Air, which in this case is a backronym (feel free to google that one) for Amour, Imagination, and Réve (English: Love, Imagination, Dream), is comprised of the duo of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel. The pair met whilst playing in the band, Orange, after going to school or architecture and mathematics respectively. Moon Safari spawned a trio of hit singles with "Sexy Boy," "Kelly Watch The Stars," and "All I Need," the former of which gained recognition due to its placement in the 1999 film, 10 Things I Hate About You as well as being featured in the U.K. TV show, Queer As Folk. The record itself debut at number five on the U.K. charts, and this was in large part due to universally enthusiastic reviews as well as the success of the "Sexy Boy" single. While the music on Moon Safari is a far cry from what was traditionally thought to be "dance music," due to the amazing depth and mood, a few of the songs found their way into dance clubs, and this further helped the album to gain popularity. The significance of Air and Moon Safari were further cemented by a Swedish prog-rock who decided to name themselves Moon Safari.

Taking influence from the electronic artists they grew up with, Air sculpted the new sound out of the best parts of the best artists. At times showing off their obvious love for Burt Bacharach (just listen to "Ce Matin Lá" and you'll hear it), the group was out to push the boundaries on what could be considered "electronica," and in the process, defined a new genre. Spacey, hypnotic, yet not music that will lull one to sleep, the textures and atmospheres created by Air are truly amazing. Running the gamut from deep, trance inducing tracks like "Talisman," to more "jam" like explorations such as "La Femme d'Argent" to the upbeat, surprise dance track, "Sexy Boy," the group shows off their wide range of ability throughout the entire album. Primarily using Moog synthesizers and drum machines, Air also finds perfect sound effects and other instrumentation to make the songs nothing short of breathtaking. From glockenspiels to harmonica to simple hand clapping, Moon Safari features an amazingly diverse range of backing instruments, and it helps to keep the songs fresh and individual. Even with this diversity in instrumentation, the overall mood of Moon Safari is a consistent, relaxing feel that takes "mellow" music into an entirely different world.

Another element that vaulted Moon Safari to the exalted status that it has achieved is the stunning vocal work of Beth Hirsch. In many ways the link between Beth Gibbons and Sia Furler, Hirsch uses her amazing voice to create similarly hypnotic textures that move in and around the music perfectly. With minimal studio effects, Hirsch's voice is both subtle and commanding simultaneously, her singing takes the captivating delivery of Gibbons, yet leaves the melancholy mood behind in favor of a more neutral, or at times upbeat disposition. Dunckel also works in fitting vocals, using a vocorder to give the vocals on "Remember" a delightfully retro sound, the likes of which hadn't been attempted in decades. He also uses other recording equipment to give himself a distorted soprano vocal on "Sexy Boy." While there are only a handful of songs with lyrics, much like the mood of the entire record, the songs are of love and longing (and in one case, lust), and the words, much like the music and delivery are genuinely beautiful It is this variance in vocal sounds and styles that helps Moon Safari to be anything resembling repetitive, yet the group of songs function perfectly as a beautiful, cohesive unit.

With the help of irresistibly catchy and mesmerizing sonic textures and absolutely perfect vocals, Air and their seminal debut record, Moon Safari, helped to concretely define exactly how "chillout" music should sound. The blissful, almost euphoric atmosphere that permeates the entire record was truly the first album to present the mood so perfectly, for an entire album. The compositions offered by Godin and Dunckel represent their thorough knowledge of their influences and what it was that made those artists great. Condensing it all into a strict, yet free flowing sound, they constructed the perfect definition for the term "chillout." Though some songs have a bit quicker tempo, the relaxing, warm feel to Moon Safari is a pure delight to experience time and time again. While a number of groups have attempted to mimic the model set by Moon Safari, there honestly has not been another group to achieve the pure bliss and musical creativity and variety for an entire album of songs. Beth Hirsch's angelic vocals, combined with the enthralling, breathtaking musical landscapes of Godin and Dunckel make Air's 1998 debut, Moon Safari, one of the most phenomenal musical experiences ever released.

Standout tracks: "La Femme d'Argent," "All I Need," and "You Make It Easy."

No comments: