Air, "Pocket Symphony" (Astralwerks)
Since Air's much-lauded 1998 debut, "Moon Safari," the French electronic-pop
duo of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel have had a hard time balancing
the different elements of their sound. Some critics thought their second
album, "10,000 HZ Legend" (2001), went too far toward edgy, experimental
soundscapes, while "Talkie Walkie" (2004) was too much of a conventional pop
disc to please others, and the tracks they crafted for Sofia Coppola's 2000
film "The Virgin Suicides" were too much like, well, soundtrack music. I
enjoyed them all, though I agreed that the pair hadn't recaptured that
perfect mix of accessible and inventive -- until now.
Produced by Nigel Godrich (best known for working with Radiohead, but
also on board with Air for "10,000 HZ Legend"), "Pocket Symphony" unfolds
like a great soundtrack, slowly building suspense and an atmosphere of dread
and foreboding with a seamless mix of electronic instruments and acoustic
guitar or koto and shamisen, two classical Japanese instruments that Godin
spent a year learning how to play. At intervals amid the sonic swirl, the
dark clouds part for moments of pure pop bliss, among them some impressive
guest turns ("One Hell of a Party" is a prime rumination on ruined romance
from Jarvis Cocker of Pulp) and sensuous masterpieces such as "Napalm Love,"
"Photograph" and "Redhead Girl."
During moments such as these, you realize that Air has once again
achieved an unlikely accomplishment -- creating gorgeous ambient music that
actually prompts you to hum along.