Air stays shy of camp

Everything surrounding The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola’s tirelessly hyped debut as a feature film director, reads like a how-to of self-conscious retro-chic, which is, after all, the pinnacle of modern cool. Air’s haunting Original Motion Picture Score for The Virgin Suicides may be the premiere example of this phenomenon.

The French duo of Jean Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin continue to employ layers of analog synthesizers, and a taste for ’70s prog-rock and ’60s French pop, in the service of their lush, atmospheric music. Yet fans of 1998’s Moon Safari and 1999’s Premiers Symptomes will find that The Virgin Suicides is not simply the next step for Air. It is quite specifically a film score, not a standard pop album, with only one track, the opening “Playground Love,” that could properly be described as a song. The rest of the album consists of variations on a few fairly basic minor chord progressions, and is governed throughout by a remarkably disciplined unity.

Throughout the album, the tracks are consistently creepy and evocative, living up to such darkly maudlin titles as “Cemetary Party,” “Empty House” and “Dead Bodies,” and Air continue to impress with the sheer arsenal of sounds they have at their disposal. “The Word ‘Hurricane,’” which begins as a deft tribute to Dark Side of the Moon-era Pink Floyd, incorporates a woman explaining the physics of hurricanes in an emotionless monotone before collapsing onto itself in a furious storm of drums and twinkling keyboard anarchy. “Dirty Trip,” with its driving bass line and sweeping Doppler-effect punctuations, builds from anxiety to genuine panic.

The best thing about Air’s Score for The Virgin Suicides is that although the music is so resolutely filmic, it is strong enough that when heard without the context of Coppola’s movie, it implies a film of its own. The most disappointing moment on the album, in fact, comes when Air try too hard to tie their music explicitly to this film, perhaps out of a sense of obligation to their patron. The final track, “Suicide Underground,” features a voiceover narration about the “suicide of the Lisbon girls,” slowed down and digitally altered to a horror movie growl. It is an unfortunately cheesy effect, for the song, a ponderous funeral hymn, is otherwise one of the finest on the album.

This has always been Air’s Achilles’ heel. As they showed on tracks such as “Ce Matin La” from Moon Safari (tuba solo anyone?), there is a thin line between avant-garde cool and camp. Only occasionally, however, do Air cross over that line on the Score for the Virgin Suicides, which, though a bit repetitive and uneven at times, is still hypnotic, evocative and often beautiful.

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