At a certain point, musical movements in their purest original forms undergo a natural process of dilution. Take punk, for example: Husker Du added pop to the Sex Pistols, Green Day added pop to Husker Du, and voila! Punk was a multimillion selling industry instead of a DIY rallying cry.
To an extent, this has already happened with electronic music. An entire wave of early ‘90s digital acts made the work of Kraftwerk and Can more accessible. And acts such as Portishead and Stereolab have now added another pop dimension to electronica by including vocals and more traditional verse/chorus structure.
Taking electronica one step further towards the realm of pop songwriting are Air and Mono, two European acts. Air adapts Stereolab’s kitsch love of the ‘60s to a more overtly style-obsessed atmosphere (read: no lyrics supporting socialism, no name-dropping of obscure movie directors). Mono strips Portishead’s trip-hop of its claustrophobic darkness and its emotional desolation, focusing more on its own pop sound.
Air’s Moon Safari sets out to make light of its own kitsch swankiness. The opening track, “La Femme D’Argent,” starts out with a helping of liquid noise that would sound right at home on Stereolab’s Dots and Loops. To make comparisons even more obvious, Air adds some casually tossed in French lyrics, and obsession with the Moog and an American vocalist, Beth Hirsch, whose voice lies somewhere between the preciousness of Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier and the soulful emotion of Portishead’s Beth Gibbons. Hell, the cover even bills them explicitly as a “French band.”
Thankfully, Air prove they can do a lot more than simply allude to their own kitsch. The first single, “Sexy Boy,” is about as willfully easy and fun as electronic can get without becoming full-on pop, proof that a sleazy disco beat and falsetto vocals have a life beyond the Bee Gees.
Elsewhere, “Kelly, Watch the Stars!” recasts “Around the World” by fellow Franks Daft Punk as a laid-back, atmospheric groove. Best of all is the majestic “Ce Matin La,” which adds a spaced-out lyricism to Air’s cheesy electro-pop hybrid, gliding effortlessly from the romantic strains of a full string section to an unenlightening mass of well-stolen sound, but it never heads in that direction because the band is acutely aware of its own style. The album moves past its myriad Stereolab allusions to become joyously self-referential. Air may never capture the pure joy of pop on an electronic disc, but they are willing to die trying.
Mono, on the other hand, never manages to transcend Portishead comparisons on Formica Blues. The result is a severely disappointing record, especially considering producer/arranger Martin Virgo’s impressive credentials as a collaborator with Massive Attack’s Shara Nelson and Nellee Hooper.
Virgo is in fact a pretty talented guy, and he provides glimpses of that throughout the album. The beginning of “The Outsider” does a fine job of juxtaposing space-pop reminiscent of “Also Sprach Zarasthrustra” with textured beats before combining the two seamlessly. The jazzy “Penguin Freud” opens with an ambient swirl punctuated by ostensibly random saxophone bursts.
However, that is precisely the problem with Formica Blues. The disc provides mere moments of promise that it can’t fulfill. No example cements this point more effectively than that of the much ballyhooed “Great Expectations” theme “Life In Mono.” An odds-on bet to do for trip-hop what Sugar Ray did for ska, “Life” is a sound-byte, not a song. Sure, it’s breathy and ethereal in the adverts, but, when given four minutes to make its case, it turns out to be far too easy, a slab of well-placed jungle beats and sung/whispered choruses of “ingenue” that has no emotional resonance.
Just as “Life In Mono” simply takes elements of trip-hop already introduced by Portishead and Tricky and makes them more overt, the rest of Formica Blues straightens up the beats and clarifies the instrumentation. Still, Mono still aspires to the same old trip-hop graveness, and the album seems watered-down and ineffectual for it. Memo to Mono: there’s an album called Moon Safari that makes the case for joyous noise pretty well. Listen to it.