CD Review of Talkie Walkie by Air

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Talkie Walkie
starstarstarstarhalf star Label: Astralwerks
Released: 2004
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Or, How Nicolas and Jean-Benoit Got Their Groove Back.

The stars that shine the brightest often burn out the quickest, and for a while there, it appeared that Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel, the French electronic retro-darlings known as Air, were on the verge of becoming a supernova. What a pushover. Anyone who gets that joke, pat yourself on the back, and remember this: You are so old.

Air’s debut album, 1998’s Moon Safari, was the album that launched a thousand electronic ships, with deliberately outdated synthesizers and textbook after-hours cool. The band soon made lots of important fans: Madonna loved them, Beck remixed them, and Sofia Coppola soon tapped them to score her directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides. The music was appropriately bleak, much like the source material, and the album was considered fine but not earth shattering. Sophomore slump status was not yet applied, given the album’s categorization as a movie score.

And then the band pulled a trick out of the playbook of every UK synth pop band circa 1983: they decided they wanted to rock. Air flirted with a harder sound in their live shows when supporting Moon Safari, but never committed any of it to tape until the woefully misguided 2001 album 10,000 Hz Legend, whereupon the band not only explored electro-rock but, horrors, electro-prog, the bane of all rock critics’ existence. (Well, most critics: this critic in particular is quite fond of Rush and Yes.) The press recoiled. DJ’s shrieked. Everyone else shrugged.

Imagine the surprise, then, to find that Air’s newest, Talkie Walkie, is not only considerably better than 10,000 Hz Legend but quite possibly the best thing the band’s ever done, even giving the supposedly untouchable Moon Safari a run for its money. The desire that led the band to write songs like “Wonder Milky Bitch” (a swipe at Hooverphonic, perhaps?) is thankfully quenched, and while Talkie Walkie may recall Air’s best work, the sound is decidedly more current. The band clearly knew that they could only go so far with a Rhodes and a Moog, and wisely chose not to make Mars Safari. Producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Travis, Beck) no doubt deserves some credit for the sonic makeover as well.

That is not to say that the album doesn’t take a longing look into music’s past, it just chooses not to wallow in it. The arrangement of leadoff track “Venus” has a whiff of “Jack and Diane,” of all things, supporting Godin’s vocal (the band sang the songs themselves this time, leaving the torch singers at home) with a backbone of piano, kick drums and hand claps. The fantastic “Run” sports a loving tribute to 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” with waves of vocals washing over a bubbly percussion track straight from the title track of Radiohead’s Kid A. “Cherry Blossom Girl” contains the only guest vocal, an appropriately demure reading from Jessica Banks. Driven by a sprightly acoustic guitar and shimmering strings, it’s the closest real connection to the band’s Safari days. Likewise, the sharp instrumental “Mike Mills” is the closest link to the prog rock leanings of Legend, with multiple busy-bee keyboard lines, including a piano riff that dares to not be in 4/4 time.

The band’s decision to handle the vocal duties themselves, “Cherry Blossom Girl” excepted, is a smart one, the better to avoid Massive Attack’s dilemma of keeping Horace Andy and Tracey Thorn on permanent speed dial. They’re not blessed with heavenly voices, but they serve the material well, particularly on the bouncy-silly “Surfing on a Rocket.” They’re also smart enough to know not to overdo the vocals the first time around, rounding the album out with “Mike Mills” and the melancholy instrumental “Alone in Kyoto,” which was written for Sofia Coppola’s newest movie, Lost in Translation.

Had Air signed with a juggernaut like Interscope or Warners instead of the artist-friendly Astralwerks, they likely would have been dropped before Talkie Walkie ever saw the light of day, and what a senseless travesty that would have been. The lesson here is simple and clear: record sales are overrated.

There is no need to spend multimillions of dollars marketing albums to the people who are least likely to buy them. Instead, dial back the marketing machine, actually make a concerted effort to nurture your artists, set reasonable sales expectations, and see what happens. One likely result: more bands would prosper, music in general would be more interesting, and everyone would make more money. More importantly, good bands like Air would get a second chance at larger success, while the lesser bands would be exposed and thinned from the herd. A lofty concept, perhaps, but desperate times, etc. If it meant, over the long run, that more bands made a third album as good as Talkie Walkie, it’s worth exploring.

~David Medsker