April 2004

Air - Talkie Walkie
Virgin CD 72435 967240 3
Released: 2003

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

Levinhurst - Perfect Life
Full Contact 001
Released: 2004

Musical Performance **1/2
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment **1/2

by Joseph Taylor

The opening notes of Talkie Walkie, the new disc by the French duo Air (Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin), hit your speakers hard. I jumped the first time I played it at a normal volume setting, and worried for a moment that one of my drivers could have been damaged. Well, perhaps I’m exaggerating a little. But there’s not much front-to-back soundstage on Talkie Walkie, and my initial impression of the disc itself was that it might be all surface. Yet even that first listen captivated me -- it might be surface beauty, but what beauty!

In fact, Talkie Walkie is like a rich French dessert: enjoyable, complex, and probably an indulgence. I almost wrote that you wouldn’t want a steady diet of it, but (and I never would have thought I’d be saying this about a disc of ambient Euro-pop) I haven’t been able to keep it out of my CD player. Nearly every sound, including the vocals, has been electronically processed in some way, but Talkie Walkie doesn’t sound cold or mechanical. It has a big heart, one that beats less with strong emotion than with the pure love of sound and melody.

It’s also unabashedly romantic -- at least half the songs contain sentiments like the one stated in "Venus": "We could be together/Lovers forever." Dunckel and Godin sing in somewhat fey, breathy voices in delightfully accented English, which only adds to the disc’s exotic charm. Sometimes the stress falls where you don’t expect it and that can lead to some amusing mistakes. Until I read the title, I heard the lyrics to the chorus of "Universal Traveler" as "You need a soul driver." Honest, it’s an easy mistake to make.

Because of the immediacy of the recording, listening to Talkie Walkie is almost a tactile experience. Percussion sounds rub, brush, and echo; keyboards throb like kick drums; and the vocals are so close the singers seem to be whispering into your ear. The melody of "Biological" floats in a warm bath of sounds -- a haunting Theremin, fuzzy percussion; a Beatlesque bass line; and, on the chorus, an arpeggio played on the banjo. Clicks, pops, and buzzes weave in and out of the disc. And, while much of what you hear seems to be taking place near the front of the soundstage, everything is cleanly recorded and well separated. Repeated listening reveals more depth to the sound, as well. The percussion on "Universal Traveler," which sounds like a drumstick hitting an iron pipe, rings nicely into the room behind it.

It would be easy to dismiss Talkie Walkie as a collection of interesting sounds, except for the simple fact that the songs are absolutely infectious. I may have misheard the words to "Universal Traveler," but I couldn’t rid my mind of the song or of the enchanting keyboard melody that recurs through it. "Surfing on a Rocket" seems to glide on air and the ingeniously goofy "Alpha Beta Gaga" features a host of amusing sound effects and a lilting, whistled melody. Air seem to have taken Kraftwerk’s electronic keyboard experiments and married them to Abba’s loopy songcraft. The result is utterly charming, hummable, and gorgeous. Talkie Walkie isn’t profound, but neither is a Faberge egg. That doesn’t make it any less beautiful.

It’s possible that ten years from now I’ll play Talkie Walkie and find that it sounds dated, but I don’t think so. Air’s keyboard sounds and electronic effects grow out of their songs. The Cure, another group of musicians who relied heavily on technology, made records that could very easily have sounded obsolete. Instead, their music has traveled well because of good songwriting and unique instrumentation. Laurence "Lol" Tolhurst, a member of the Cure until 1989, has a new band that uses the new-wave keyboard sounds of the '80s as a point of departure. Perfect Life is the debut CD by his new band, Levinhurst, which includes his wife Cindy Levinson on vocals and Dayton Borders on a variety of instruments.

Perfect Life opens with the stirring, atmospheric "Vinti," which sounds like something that would run behind the opening credits of a spy film set in the Middle East. The next track, "Let’s Go," commences with an electronic snapping sound and a jabbing programmed kickdrum. Levinson counts in a familiar keyboard riff and up to that point there isn’t much going on that doesn’t remind you of innumerable faceless '80s new-wave bands. But Levinson begins to sing in an effortless, pure alto, and things pick up a little. Levinson’s voice nearly carries you through the rest of the disc, which often sounds like a parody of a Vangelis soundtrack.

Some of the songs on Perfect Life are melodically inventive, and Levinson’s voice is quite pleasant to listen to, but after a while the repetitive, walloping drum beats and distorted keyboard tones made me feel as if I’d had too much coffee. There are some nice touches, such as the sitar in "Sadman," and a few witty keyboard flourishes. On balance, however, I found myself wishing that Levinson’s voice could separate itself from the noise surrounding it. A few acoustic instruments, a real drum kit, and arrangements that don’t overpower the songs could make all the difference next time around.