Beyond 'Moon's' eclipse
 

May 4, 2007

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

Since the release of its 1998 debut, "Moon Safari," everything the French duo Air has done has been compared to that brilliant set of melodic and otherworldly ambient pop. It's as if Pink Floyd made its bow with "The Dark Side of the Moon," and some critics and fans couldn't listen to anything else the group recorded.

"That's true, but I really don't mind," says Nicolas Godin, who formed the band with fellow multi-instrumentalist Jean-Benoit Dunckel in Paris. "It's cool, because when I was a kid, I was dreaming about classic albums, and I'm happy we did one. It's such a fantastic achievement when you dream of making music and then you manage to make an album that has an impact on people."

From this critic's perspective, the only down side is that many people have unfairly missed the pleasures of subsequent releases, such as the swirling electronic soundtrack for Sofia Coppola's 2000 film "The Virgin Suicides," the more straightforward pop of "Talkie Walkie" (2004) and the excellent new disc "Pocket Symphony," which once again strikes the perfect balance between structured songs and dreamy soundscapes. Godin says it was partly a reaction to working with singer Charlotte Gainsbourg, daughter of cult legends Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, on "5:55" (2006).

"We had just finished the album with Charlotte, and we were very proud, but we were fed up with writing songs and wanted to do something calmer. We went to Japan just because we felt that we needed a break, and we wanted to do a record more like the way we used to work. With Charlotte, the format was verse and chorus, verse and chorus. We were working with a team, and when you have an idea, it isn't explored unless it works as part of a song. We never did that in the past. Sometimes, an idea would become a song, and sometimes, we just had music that we liked. We write and record in the studio, doing everything at the same time, and we just try to see where that will go."

Where things ultimately went was a collection of tunes tied together by beautiful instrumental passages forming a song cycle about falling in and out of love. Brian Eno, the godfather of ambient music and one of Air's biggest heroes, once said musicians should never write another love song, because it's been done to death and it's impossible to avoid cliches. That didn't stop Air from trying, or from coming up with distinctive tunes such as "Napalm Love," "Photograph" and "Redhead Girl."

"It's true, the only thing musicians write about is love!" Godin says. "We should be more original; we should sing about something else, because there are too many songs about love. But we tried to do something different, like 'Napalm Love,' which was inspired because we use all of these words to describe love that are just so violent. Like 'falling in love'; who wants to fall, you know? Or 'having a crush'; I don't want to be crushed!"

Somehow, though, every line Air sings has a way of sounding seductive. Godin laughs. "We decided at the beginning that everything we sing we'd sing in English, because we can say anything and it will sound cute with the accent!"

The influence of the band's surroundings can also be heard on "Pocket Symphony" via the presence of koto and shamisen, traditional Japanese stringed instruments that Godin spent a year learning to play. The final factor: producer Nigel Godrich, best known for working with Radiohead, but also on board with Air for "10,000 HZ Legend" (2001).

"Nigel's biggest influence is that he does not let us cross the line of bad taste, because sometimes we can be very cheesy. But he is also very good at sound engineering, and the record sounds great. That was especially important because we wanted to do something very minimal, so if you have a very deep sound, you can get a great a sound with just three instruments, like on 'Night Sight.' "

As in the past, Air hopes to capture the ebb and flow of its new album on stage. "We try to recreate the vibe of the record, because people want to chill out," Godin says. "But after 20 minutes, we may do an up-tempo song or two. It takes one or two weeks to find the feel that people like, but it's cool, because we have so many records now, we can really pick out all the best songs."

Post-Ozzy Sabbath shines in 'Dio Years'

Most casual rock fans know Black Sabbath was one of the bands that laid the foundation for heavy metal, and for them, the only lineup that matters is fronted by singer Ozzy Osbourne. But when a drunken, drug-addicted Oz was fired by guitarist Tony Iommi in 1980, Ronnie James Dio, formerly of Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, came on board on vocals, joining a group completed at various points by Sabbath mainstays Iommi, Geezer Butler on bass and Bill Ward on drums (though he eventually left to battle alcoholism, too, and was replaced by Vinny Appice).

Dio's Sabbath brought fresh energy to the classic dark and heavy sound in the form of more concise songs and more rollicking tempos, showing the influence of and being embraced by the bands and fans of the burgeoning New Wave of British Heavy Metal (Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Venom). This band made one great album ("Heaven and Hell," 1980) and two pretty good ones (1981's "Mob Rules" and 1992's "Dehumanizer") before splitting. Now, its best moments are compiled on "Black Sabbath: The Dio Years," and Dio, Iommi, Ward and Appice are touring as Heaven and Hell to celebrate.

The metal gods, now using "Heaven and Hell" as the band name, perform at the Allstate Arena, 6920 N. Mannheim in Rosemont, after openers Megadeth and Machine Head starting at 7 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $32-$52 through Ticketmaster. Call (312) 559-1212.

AIR; KATE HAVNEVIK'

 8 tonight
 Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine
 Tickets, $29.50
 (312) 559-1212

 

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