After emerging as a pair of sweet, extraterrestrial Frenchmen with a deep love of antique synthesizers, Air surprised everybody by following the now-classic Moon Safari with 10,000 Hz Legend, an album that band member Jean-Benoit Dunckel described as more extreme, more uncommercial, and very nasty.
Meanwhile, fellow electronic music linchpin and king of chill Moby chased his career-defining 1999 album Play with 18, a collection so similar to Play that no one seemed to notice its arrival.
Today, both acts go back to their roots in very different ways. For Air, this means the new album Talkie Walkie (Astralwerks) revisits the melodic, expansive, retro-futuristic doodlings of Moon Safari. Moby returns to the underground club scene, where he started his career, with Baby Monkey (V2), an album released under the pseudonym Voodoo Child.
Airs Talkie Walkie begins with the utilitarian Venus but quickly reveals its charming nature with the seductive Cherry Blossom Girl. The sublime arrangements that Air so successfully navigated in Moon Safari finally drift back to life. A flute flutters passionately over an electronic symphony, while Dunckel and Nicolas Godin capably handle the vocal duties without the crutch of a vocoder.
Surprisingly, Air worked with a proper rock producer on Talkie. Nigel Godrich, the knob twiddler behind Radioheads OK Computer and Becks Sea Change, had the sense to let the pair remain as flaky as ever, but he also reined in the asperity that marred 2001s 10,000 Hz Legend. Even when Air sneaks off on an instrumental tangent with the song Mike Mills, the result is deeply satisfying, like a well-tempered Bach fugue as performed in duet by E. Power Biggs and Paul Mauriat.
The duo seems more intent on balancing its diaphanous moments with solid pop offerings, and its this constant shifting of moods that keeps Talkie moving quickly. The albums high point, Surfing on a Rocket, is a giddy dollop of pop that offers the catchiest countdown to blastoff since Peter Schillings Major Tom.
The combination of romantic and irreverent, with healthy traces of Gallic moodiness and sensuality, makes Talkie Walkie as indispensable as the benchmark Moon Safari. Talkie is also an early contender for one of the most beautiful albums of the year. Dunckel and Godin are well on their way to mastering the art of creating indelibly catchy pop.
The same cannot be said of Mobys Baby Monkey. But the self-effacing Moby makes it clear from the outset that he has no such ambitions for his album, which is why he released it under his alias.
Baby Monkey was inspired by a party in abandoned railway tunnels in Glasgow. I arrived home the next day and decided I wanted to make a simple, straightforward dance record, Moby writes in the albums liner notes.
And thats exactly what hes done. With a minimum of fuss and sampling, Moby recorded an album of house and trance music that is a throwback to the days of Go and Feeling So Real, minus the splashy breaks. Baby Monkey feels like a superstar cleansing his palate and deciding which direction to explore next. For now, Moby has hung up his rock star ambitions (and given that wobbly voice a rest) and returned to his geek roots.
But in his effort to anonymously release an album of dance music, Moby has instead released an album of anonymous dance music. Despite the high number of beats per minute, theres something oddly anemic about this collection. The only track that inspires jubilation is opener Gotta Be Loose in Your Mind, which hints at the fun of the Everything Is Wrong era. Purely functional, Baby Monkey is devoid of its authors quirkiness, and its that quirkiness that makes Mobys music so special.
Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com