Air announces US live date

After the sold-out tour last March that brought Air back to North America after more than three years, the French electronic-pop duo returns with an exclusive live date in the States this October. Scheduled for October 23 at LA’s Shrine Auditorium, the show will consist of opening acts by Quadron and Juliette Commagere.

With albums such as Moon Safari and the latest, Love 2, Air holds 5.5 million worldwide record sales to date. Its app for iPhone, titled “Love by Air” (developed with London-based music tech company RjDj), spent several weeks in the iTunes Top 20 Music Apps chart.

The application allows users to mix their own versions of the band’s music by choosing from five different “soundscapes,” then transforming them by sampling and processing ambient sounds, their own voice, and more into Air’s hits. Also available through the app are personal message and performance recordings to make sharing of these creations possible.

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50 Unheralded Albums from 2009

Egyptian, Indian, and Arabic styles in Western structures. Absurdist progressive neoclassical. Playful orchestrations with big-band swing and foreboding soundtrack cues. Blood-curdling horror scores and reflective, introspective rhymes.

ALARM leaves no genre unloved in our round-up of 50 albums that didn’t receive enough attention in 2009.

Presented in chronological order.

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Air: French Mood Setters Still a Band Apart

AIR. It always was an ambitious name for a band, so brief and elemental. It posed from the start the question of substance, and when the French duo of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel turned up in 1998 with the, well, airy electronic sketches of Moon Safari, they achieved saturation in certain circles followed by a depletion of density.

Having spawned no imitators, initiated no trends, they returned at unhurried intervals with albums mining essentially the same concept: highly produced affairs with a pop sophistication so uncanny as to cause as much wariness as listening pleasure, earning them not-quite-friendly designations like “soft electropop.”

And now they’re back, three years after their 2004 sortie Talkie Walkie, with a new album called Pocket Symphony that finds them in a stripped-down, quiet place, a minimalist project that might or might not prove a commercial risk. The “French Touch” club wave, to which they only awkwardly belonged in the first place, has long since waned. They are alone – a condition, it turns out, that they find quite appealing.

On a chilly evening, Godin and Dunckel sit in a Williamsburg photographer’s studio, letting a soggy couch support them after they’ve posed for a shoot. They’ve had a tedious day, spent mainly at the French consulate renewing passports after a misunderstanding with authorities at JFK. Godin, who has the perkier personality, is distracted at first, texting with his girlfriend in Paris. Dunckel seems part contemplative, part jetlagged.

Neither man is a massive physical specimen, but both are attractively lanky and appear comfortable in their skin and relaxed-European garb: jacket, dark pants, open shirt. They are, to put it simply, French – casually, fluidly so, but leaving no doubt as to their cultural provenance. For this writer, who happened to grow up in France about the same time Godin and Dunckel did, it’s an uncanny blast from the past.

And so is their music in a lot of ways. There’s a retro, romantic underpinning to their work – a self-conscious effort to put themselves outside trend and time. Critics pin on them pop labels – post-Kraftwerk synth-electronica, post-Gainsbourg French existential pop, and the 1990s “French Touch” club music – but they resist all designations.

The influences they credit are not performers but composers – Erik Satie, Olivier Messiaen, Philip Glass – and most of all the soundtrack composers of their childhood like Ennio Morricone and Michel Colombier. A fascination with film scores is key to the Air sensibility and results from the pair growing up with a typically French cinema habit.

As epiphanies go, Godin likens the first time he heard Morricone’s soundtrack to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti-western classic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, in its life-changing effect, to an American first hearing the Beatles in 1964 on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

“I think for a French kid watching these movies was the biggest shock you could feel when you were a teenager or child,” Godin says. “Because pop culture isn’t a French thing, but music soundtracks are a strong part of French culture.” He cites composers such as Georges Delarue, who worked with Jean-Luc Godard, or Michel Colombier.

Growing up, Godin says, “You can’t be French and say I’m going to be hip hop. As an American teenager you can dream of hip hop, but as a French teenager it’s ridiculous. But we have these soundtracks. That’s why we go more into this orchestral music.”

That premise, of course, is open to challenge – after all, there’s a profusion of quality French hip hop – but it indicates from where Air is coming. They are, in a sense, space-age cultural conservatives, purveyors of a nostalgic electronica in which lyrics are optional, song structure is secondary, and the priority is the establishment of a sonic haven where you can be free with your fantasies, just like at the movies.

“Normal people go to the cinema and that’s the way they get moved,” Dunckel says. “And so I try to model this emotion and make music with it, and have the same effect. What I take from a movie, I put it in some speakers, and that’s the basis of Air’s music, I think. People just listen to our music and they think they are in a movie.”

Air have one actual soundtrack to their credit, the 2001 score to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. It was their second full-length project and seemed a departure from the proper progress path for a new pop group. Looking back, it may have proven a rare chance to score a full movie from a clean slate rather than assemble a package of songs “inspired by” the film, as is increasingly common.

It’s an approach they’d like to revive, although probably not with Coppola: “She’s doing less and less in terms of traditional soundtrack,” Godin says. “She works with a guy who collects a lot of songs and puts them in the movie. We prefer the traditional approach.”

Dunckel picks up: “I think that when you do a soundtrack, your heart is more full and your mind is more open, and anything is possible. But when you do an album, it’s more formatted. Even before you start you feel more limited, because it’s songs. When it’s a soundtrack, it can go in any direction; there’s no rule.”

Some people like songs, of course – even Air, when pressed to discuss specific tracks. Still, they are coming back to the wide-open soundscapes of their early work. Principally instrumental and, on the whole, a relatively quiet album, Pocket Symphony lacks the agitation of 10,000 Hz Legend or the crisply packaged pacing of Talkie Walkie. It makes no apologies for the minimalist serenity that may drive antsy listeners up the wall, but that reflects the state of mind of the duo, who are now deep in their thirties.

“Every record reflects where we are,” says Dunckel. “It’s amazing. I can read all my life looking at the records we did. Moon Safari was innocence, 10,000 Hz was tortured…”

Asked how they’ve changed, Dunckel answers by means of a projection.

“I think there is always this girl that we are speaking to,” he says. “Like the average woman, or the girl that we would like to have, or that we have just had, and it’s this freeform shape, this woman that we are talking to and is always there.”

“At the beginning she was a brunette,” Godin interjects. “Now she’s a blonde.”

“At first she was only there to pass a good time with,” Dunckel continues. “But now she is a mother. She has to be able to face maternity.”

Godin and Dunckel are family men, though vague about the number and distribution of baby-mamas. Dunckel and his girlfriend live with his three kids and her two in a loft in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, a once-seedy, now artsy district near two major train stations. Godin has two kids, a steady girlfriend, and lives in the upscale 16th.

Between work and family life, Godin and Dunckel by their own admission don’t get out very much anymore. They don’t exude fascination with other pop developments, in Paris or elsewhere, and they reject any association with a music scene. They are quite literally bande à part, a French term for outsiders that translates to “a band apart.”

“Even when the ‘French Touch’ started, we were the only ones to do music with no beat in it,” Godin says. “And that’s amazing, even when we are part of a movement, we are alone in this movement. Now more than ever.”

“We are more part of a culture than part of a music scene,” Dunckel says.

Typically, a stance of splendid isolation in pop is hard to back up, exposed as it is to accusations of arrogance or complacency that are all too often well-founded. So it’s tempting to scrutinize Air for signs of hubris or, at least, disconnection with daily life. Remarkably, there are precious few. Godin and Dunckel are too down to earth, too obviously true to their game, and most of all too damn intelligent.

In fact, you could fairly call them intellectuals, ones who made the most of their high-end French public education and ultimately, despite becoming full-time musicians, never renounced their original fields – architecture for Godin, mathematics for Dunckel.

That background means that when Godin talks about building a song, he’s barely being metaphoric.

“Every song has an approach,” he says. “Our music is very built with a foundation and space. The first thing that they taught me at school is [that] the important thing is not the walls but the space behind the walls. The wall is nothing. Just put two walls together and it creates a space. Because if you take a baseline and a point, the whole energy between them creates the space of the music.”

“Our music is very spacey, it’s the most spacey music I know,” Godin continues. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing of bad, but at least it’s fucking spacey.”

The mathematically trained Dunckel, meanwhile, brings to the Air tracks the tinkering of an experimentalist who knows there can be beauty in an unexpected equation.

“Theory can be really important for improving music,” Dunckel says. “You say, I’m going to do some conceptual music now, and I want to reverse what the melody will do. I want the melody to be done by the bass, the bass lines to be made by the drums… It can lead to some really weird music.”

He grows animated as he details an example: “One day we made a track, we reversed the tape, pitched it down, picked it up… We wrote it down on paper, recorded the guitar making new chords, these chords were weird because we made some mistakes, we kept some reversed tracks mixed in with some new parts – it’s a theory thing but it works. The track is called ‘Caramel Prisoner’ – it’s on 10,000 Hz. Things like that.”

By stripping down the sound on Pocket Symphony, the pair have allowed themselves to dwell on conceptual matters. “Nightsight,” the album’s closing track, offers a simple illustration. It is built on two cycles, one of four notes and one of seven. The cycles merge and separate to an almost hypnotic effect kept off-kilter by the unusual spacing.

“When the cycles just go back together it’s such a relief,” Godin says. “And we say that the system of the song is that magic moment when suddenly they go back together for [about] one second. So we didn’t want to have too much on top of it. They just separate and come back together; that’s what creates the satisfaction. It really is a theoretical thing.”

Though it might sound paradoxical, for Air, the return to theoretical basics has meant a chance to make music that they consider warmer, by which they mean more sensual, compared to Talkie Walkie, which may be their best-crafted work songwise, but they now feel lacks an overall emotional signature.

“Our music maybe on Talkie Walkie was too cold, and I like that in the early years we were more sensual,” Godin says. “So many people made love to ‘La femme d’argent.’ We wanted to go back to that vibe.”

They like the idea of listeners having sex to their work. “At least feel some sensuality, some sexiness,” says Godin. A sonic architect, he wants to remodel your bedroom, perhaps modify some other spaces in your world to make them more conducive.

In the end, it comes down to basics. Music. Sex. Fantasy. On the new album, these themes seem to join in the repeated evocation of Japan. They know Japan from touring, of course, and Godin recently took up study of the Japanese koto, which he plays on the album. But Japan is also a parallel fantasy that could etch itself, in the end, anyplace.

“It’s a Pacific wind blowing in your face,” says Dunckel, explaining the song “Mer du Japon,” one of the few that includes a vocal part. “It’s like when you are amazed by an Asian girl, by her beauty, and you are jetlagged because you are in Japan, the wind from the ocean in your face, you are a little bit dizzy, you are lost…”

The essential truth that Air is onto is that: It’s important to be able to get lost, especially when you’re a star, or when you are creative, or when you live in the city, or maybe simply when you are human at all. Like the element they chose as their name, Godin and Dunckel have perfected the art of being present and absent at once vis à vis their audience, their peers, and even their country.

Two years ago, they were awarded a top French honor and made Knights in the National Order of Arts and Letters in a fancy government ceremony, the Minister of Culture reading a citation and adorning them with the order’s official lapel ribbon. They were, as ever, slightly flattered, slightly nonplussed, and not entirely there, already reworking the event into their fantasy world, turning it to potential creative material.

Godin smiles at the memory.

“I didn’t expect it, no,” he says. “But I was always a fan of Star Wars. I wanted to be a Jedi for the Republic, and now that’s what we are: knights of the French republic. When you are an artist, things happens to you, and you transform them into fantasy.”

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Explosions in the Sky: there’s no holding back

For Explosions in the Sky drummer Chris Hrasky, the most exciting moment of 2006 belonged in a zoo – or at least in some B-grade Samuel L. Jackson flick.

“Attacked by a snake! That would be the big crazy event of 2006,” reports Hrasky from his Austin home. In October, while the band was recording their new album at the storied, secluded Pachyderm Studios (birthplace of Nirvana‘s In Utero and PJ Harvey‘s Rid of Me, among others), they came across an unwanted reptilian visitor in the studio’s guesthouse one night.

“We tried to get it out of the house,” recalls Hrasky, who finally resorted to killing the intruder. Pachyderm is “just kind of out in the woods,” he says, and the house’s owner couldn’t get over to the property to personally deal with the situation. Maybe it’s another entry for Pachyderm’s guestbook, which already boasts a healthy collection of ghost stories in addition to its prestigious artists’ roster – a spooky pedigree that befits EitS’s darkly epic compositions.

Formed in 1999 and originally known as Breaker Morant, Hrasky and his bandmates – guitarists Munaf Rayani and Mark Smith, along with bassist/guitarist Michael James – got their start in Austin’s fertile music scene.

The quartet quickly gained a local reputation for their scathingly loud live sets, sparking the ire of several local club sound technicians and the admiration of fans and several area bands, including American Analog Set and …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead. In a story custom-built for indie rock storybooks, American Analog Set hooked EitS up with a record deal when they passed along EitS’s CD-ROM demo to their label, Temporary Residence Limited, with a note reading, “This totally fucking destroys.”

The band received a brief bout of national media attention shortly after the release of their second album, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, when some news outlets erroneously reported that the record was released on September 10, 2001 (it was actually released in August). The band’s provocative name, the album cover art depicting an airplane, and the inside liner notes that read “This plane will crash tomorrow” temporarily gave EitS a moment of infamy.

The band’s more recent (and more positive) national exposure came through their role in scoring Friday Night Lights, the 2004 major-studio drama about high school football culture in small-town Texas. It is a match that sounds dubious at best – the Austin music scene (as well as a majority of indie rock bands) has largely evolved against the grain of conventional Texas (and, by extension, typical mainstream America), and the thought of EitS’s moody instrumental swells pitted against grainy shots of sweaty jocks running drills is difficult to digest.

Adding to this unusual pairing, NBC’s spinoff television series of the same name also features songs from the band’s 2003 release, The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place.

The film’s music supervisor, Brian Reitzell, was responsible for bringing Air and Phoenix‘s dreamy soundscapes to Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation. After he approached EitS, the band realized they had a personal connection to the gridiron story.

“It was a book all four of us had read – the other three guys all grew up in the town where the story was based,” says Hrasky, referring to H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, the book basis for the film.

“It’s about people in Odessa, Texas, and [football] is sort of the only thing they cling to. Guys who play football, they’re also human beings. The tragedy of ex-football heroes – it’s a story that we all find kind of interesting.”

Despite the initial incongruity between the band and the film’s subject matter, EitS’s slow, climactic builds and escalating walls of sound create an ideal aural backdrop for the game-day emotional roller coasters that are depicted on the football field.

“We were really happy with the way the movie turned out,” Hrasky says.

Back in the post-Pachyderm world, Hrasky is busy trying to calm down his dog, Willis, who seems to be barking at half of Austin. The snake incident capped nearly two weeks of recording sessions for EitS’s fourth full-length album, All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone. Arguably the band’s strongest and most dynamic work to date, the album is comprised of the usual six tracks, each its own miniature epic.

“This is our favorite record of any that we’ve done,” Hrasky declares. “It’s the first one that, when we were done mixing it, I could listen to and be really happy with it,” he says, noting that Pachyderm’s isolated location in private parkland about forty miles south of Minneapolis-St. Paul may have been a positive influence.

“I think we’re going to try to keep recording at studios [in] out-of-the-way [locations].”

The chilly midwestern landscape and backwoods setting apparently provided just the right amount of creative inspiration for the band to record, a process, Hrasky acknowledges, that the bands dislikes greatly.

“I hate it,” he says. “I can’t stand recording. It’s just very nerve-racking.”

It’s also a process further complicated by the band’s predilection for long songs and for recording entire live takes.

“You get four minutes into a song and you still have six minutes left…you have to play the song well. Live, it doesn’t matter so much,” Hrasky says, since the band’s blistering sound levels and thrashing can cover small mistakes in the music. The recording process is a science that the band has worked to perfect over the years.

“Don’t listen to the first album, ’cause it’s not that good,” he says, and it sounds like he’s only half joking. The tracks on All of A Sudden, however, “sound a little bit more like when we’re live,” and perhaps this is the real reason behind the band’s satisfaction with the record, as well as the unprecedented depth of the album.
“We wanted this record to be more terrifying to listen to,” Hraski says. “We got letters and e-mails from people saying they’d walked down the aisle [with our songs] to get married. We wanted to make a record that people would definitely not do that to.”

And though the songs on All of a Sudden are perhaps more awe-inspiring than terrifying, they’re certainly not the obvious soundtrack for matrimonial bliss: melancholy guitar howls framed by delicate tinkling keyboard arpeggios, feedback-laced breakdowns, and sinister melodic choruses.

In the tradition of post-rock instrumentalists like Tortoise and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, every EitS song tells a story, opening with a dramatic or gradual flourish, and slowly building to wailing denouement, diving in and out of the loud-quiet-loud formula perfected by Mogwai and Hum.

“Birth and Death of the Day” opens with a huge guitar crunch and glorious, haunting swells that retreat into a meditative chant of ringing guitars and deep, hollow drums. EitS’ genius lies in their ability to craft intricate, lengthy songs that stretch through climactic bursts of unrestrained noise and interludes of delicate melodies, building to a cohesive, intense whole.

“It’s Natural To Be Afraid,” the album’s crown jewel at thirteen minutes plus, begins with vaguely robotic sound elements that descend into a quietly sinister plucked melody and a dense wall of distortion. Deftly weaving through modulations in volume, the song continues on to meld airy, triumphant guitar melodies with potent percussive elements that eventually reach a wailing fever pitch before once again dissolving into the quietly chirping electronic elements of their origins.

“So Long, Lonesome,” the album’s shortest and perhaps brightest song, develops from a chatty, tinkling melody into a sweeping, bittersweet piano lullaby that serves as a triumphant final chapter to the album’s inner narrative. Whereas earlier songs created an energy from crashing, conflicting sounds and instrumental elements, this final track imparts a serenity not heard elsewhere on the album.

Hrasky and his bandmates are preparing to share their new work with the world, launching an extensive 2007 tour that will criss-cross the US, Canada, and Europe, with potential dates in Australia and Asia still in the works.

“We’re all really excited,” he says. “[Touring] is nerve-racking, exciting, terrifying.”

One upshot of their growing fame, however, is the size of the venues the band gets to play, and the cooperation from the sound board technicians that they can now expect.

“We definitely want to be loud. It’s easier now because we’re playing big venues.”

Still, though the band won’t tone down its set, Hrasky has no intention of competing with Mogwai’s eardrum-piercing live shows.

“They want to cause seizures and stuff,” laughs Hrasky.

Regardless, he shouldn’t worry about alienating listeners with delicate ears; several months in advance, EitS show dates in New York City, London, and Boston are already sold out. As long as the band avoids a “snakes on the tourbus” incident, 2007 should be reptile-free and far more eventful than last year.

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