You probably have heard of Waronker before. Aside from being a major contribution to Beck’s studio sessions and live shows, he’s also put in time with Smashing Pumpkins, Elliot Smith and R.E.M. among others. He’s recently been part of Air’s touring band so it seems natural that he would be the new, specialized, pseudo-secret weapon built on to their new album. And natural it does, indeed, feel as Waronker aids in lifting the band to organic new heights…at least on disc.
Of course, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, the founding backbone of Air, are also doing their part in this regards. There are some nice touches of vibraphone and brass that do well to emphasize the electronics, without feeling like electronics themselves. More importantly, though, is an abundance of rather fluid piano that seems to meander more than its rigid equivalent on their past releases. Throw in some dirty guitar and it becomes well clear that Air has matured beyond mere programming.
Of course, anyone who knows anything about their live show could argue that this evolution occurred with the band a long time ago. Considering the scope of these live performances, I wouldn’t argue with that. Now, however, we are finally privy to witnessing them exercise a few more detailed caveats in the studio. Whereas on prior Air records, things generally felt compartmentalized and distinct, here we have something that seems to extend out in a multitude of curvy, uneven directions. It almost feels like an album of improvisation. Almost, I say.
They play well beyond the typical Air fare that we’ve come to love over the years. They still have they’re classic cheese (“Tropical Disease”) and it would be a shame if ever they lost that completely. (But they won’t because they are French.) Their creepy, lost-in-space kind of stuff is also here (“Do the Joy”) but it feels more expansive, particularly because of Waronker and that aforementioned dirty guitar. New to Air on this go around is the way they seem to touch on some very soulful combinations of sound that seem to resonate similarly to African-American music of the 60s, 70s and 80s. They channel Prince on “Missing the Light of Day,” The Sugarhill Gang on “Night Hunter” and the Delfonics on “Sing Sang Sung.” Pretty impressive for guys as white as France.
All of this comprehensive writing and arranging, floating effortlessly across the top of Waronker’s mellifluous pulse, makes for what may very well be the best offering from Air yet. Of course, that’s always going to be a relatively difficult thing to determine with this band. It’s like trying to pick a favorite Beatles record. You think Abbey Road is probably the best, but how can you really know? The fact of the matter is that their entire catalog is so colorful and unique that making definite choices of preference within it is pretty much moot.
Joey Waronker on drums. That’s gotta count for a few gold stars at least.
I was very excited to receive a disc from French band, Chicros, as the French are quite often ahead of the curve when it comes to smooth music production. Plus they apparently had a track on a Record Makers (Air, Sebastien Tellier) compilation, which is instant credibility in my book. I camped out beside my mailbox for a week and then it finally arrived, a disc called Radio Transmission.
Despite being French, every aspect of their album is in English. Through Wikipedia, their press release, their myspace page and Chicrodelic.com, I was able to draw a few conclusions about them. Apparently, they have been compared to every band that has ever existed. (Seriously. Music reviewers can’t ever make up their mind on this.) I also learned that the only way you can actually get your hands on this album (aside from their personal website) is by agreeing to review it or by traveling to France, Switzerland, Belgium or Japan. Lastly, they seem to be pretty no-frills, laid back and humorous guys, one who resembles a French counterpart of David Davis. (Their website bares the warning: “IF YOU DOWNLOAD ILLEGALLY THESE RECORDS, WE WON’T PROSECUTE YOU, BUT WHEN YOU DIE YOU WILL GO TO HELL.” Heh.)
Okay. So… The music. Listening to Radio Transmission one learns quite quickly why anyone who reviews this band tends to pull out so many disjunctive comparative names. It’s especially fitting here, considering that this is a concept album and the diversity of styles and genres is central to the gimmick. The concept, as should be obviously derived from the title, is that of radio, itself. Throughout its duration, there is not much of a song-to-song play through. Instead, we hear static bursts and fading in-betweens as an invisible hand switches the dial from station to station. Sometimes the fictional radio stays put for a bit, as in the case of “Radio Depressed,” which features the lonely ramblings of a Steven Wright sound-alike. He introduces the next song, a cover of the Dead Kennedys’ “Straight A’s,” which ultimately begins skipping, causing our down-and-out jock to stop the fictional disc and apologize.
These moments of silliness are listenable, but generally much weaker than the more seriously crafted and executed gems. Of particular note among those gems is the steady paced breakup song, “Without You,” featuring vocals by Brisa Roché. A piano base complimented by punchy Beatlesesque guitar work and dueling male-female vocals makes this an unconventionally accessible sing-along song. A few tracks later, we are graced with “New Orleans,” a macabre observation of said city immediately after (and maybe during) Hurricane Katrina. The lyrics point to evidence that Chicros apparently believes New Orleans is in Mississippi. This is easily overlookable, however, when surrounded by talk of death, destruction, zombies and lyrics as pointed and cutting as, “The white evacuees are far from New Orleans.” By the time they sing that famous George W. Bush line, “Doin’ a heck of a job,” the listener really does come to revisit something of a disturbed fear deep inside.
Chicros also conjures up other musical ghosts, most more welcome than Katrina. They channel The Specials on “Radio Drugs,” Belle & Sebastian on “What’s New On TV Today?” and Pink Floyd (or is it Explosions in the Sky?) on “If You Leave Me, Leave Me Running.” They also visit 1950’s era prom rock with “Why,” gospel on “Winos for Jesus” and even rap music on “Big Daddy Pimp Jr.” where they get away with saying the “N word” far more times than any group of white guys could get away with in America.
Despite the naive, unauthentic racism, Radio Transmissions is a thoroughly enjoyable listen. It’s playful and dark, at once. Having acquired distribution in four countries, and filling their disc up with English language songs while soliciting American review sites, I imagine their current goal is to take on The States. I wish them the best in this regards.
We’ve decided to start posting music podcasts here on GMBM. We’ve actually got a ton of them in storage, but we don’t want to overkill you with them, so we’ll see what happens. Each podcast will be presented in a single MP3 file, with a flow of the music in mind. You can usually get more information on the individual tracks (or the albums they are from) by clicking the titles in the tracklist.
Here is the first one we are throwing your way:
PODCAST: The Politics of Aging
“Sgt. Pepper’s Paradise” – Guns N’ Roses vs. The Beatles vs. Jimmy James
“Fine Line” – Paul McCartney
“Coffee & TV” – Blur
“Once Upon a Time” – Air
“Le Premier Amore” – Anaïs
“Golden Age” – TV on the Radio
“Strange Overtones” – David Byrne & Brian Eno
“A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger” – of Montreal
“Just a Friend With the Clap” – Shirley Ellis vs. Biz Markie
“Go There With You (Radio Edit)” – Chin Chin
“Bull Black Nova” – Wilco
“Longing for a Frozen Sky” – Ernst Reijseger, Patricio Mura & Gianluca Frau
“Divine” – Sebastian Tellier
“Tonight” – Koop & Mikael Sundin