Toronto
3 min

Sunshine, lollipops & death

Seeking depth is pop's fresh air

MARGERINE ECLIPSE. Stereolab's latest CD is dedicated to vocalist Mary Hansen, who died in 2002. Credit: Xtra files

On its fourth full album Talkie Walkie, French band Air has scrapped the prog-rock disaster that was 2001’s 10,000 Hz Legend for the femme pop of 1998’s lounge classic, Moon Safari. Good idea. Every song on this new disc has a romantic tender flourish accompanied by rather simpleton poetry (with no trace of irony). When DNA, rocket surfing and a cherry blossom girl are examined by this quirky duo, it’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull on absinthe time.



Producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead) helps band-mates Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin create a hypnotic chilly (not chill-out) spell on the listener. These boys are so close to being relegated to the New Age bin, but they’re too abstract and creepy – in a good way – for that.



“Cherry Blossom Girl” is classic Air. A light fancy acoustic guitar plaintively strums away as a flute flutters in and out. Bee Gees-esque harmonies confide: “I don’t want to be shy/ Can’t stand it anymore/ I just want to say ‘hi’ to the one I love/ Cherry blossom girl.” Cute as a button.



“Run” has Depeche Mode intensity. Electro tinkles of dread (yes, there are such things) go to town with the words “when” and “go” obsessively chanted over spooky kiddy beats. “Stay in bed I feel sad when you run/ Stay like this on the hills of my chest.” A walk on your grave set to music. Redrum!



“Surfing On A Rocket” is the coolest track. This is one of those songs that says nothing. But a specific line or phrase set to delightful ear candy gets singed in your brain and for days on end you can’t escape its admirable wrath. All the elements blast into your soul and it’s not going anywhere. Your time and experience through this song will be uniquely yours – or it could be joined by the similar nirvana of others and become popular. This song is mine right now. The production is stellar, full of echoed swirly bips and beeps and thumping bass as the fey French accents robotically chime: “I’ll be back one day/ Just pray for me/ I’m on my way/ Surfing on a rocket.” You can’t ask for more.



Of the three instrumental tracks, “Alpha Beta Gaga” is the winner (it just may bring whistling back in vogue). It’s in the spirit of Kaempfert’s “A Swingin’ Safari” and Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk,” only with whistling and banjo pickin’ to a horror movie two-step… and it works. The beauty and foreboding nature of never-ending love is what it’s all about here.



But Air are thinking men with no thoughts. They just sound smart. This album is grand background music. Every boutique, salon and lounge will be playing this sucker. But it does tug at your heart strings a bit. It’s like the feeling you get when you have a celebrity crush. The dreamy love will never be reciprocated. It feels mushy good but empty… admire from a far. Exactly.



***

Stereolab’s 1996 groundbreaking album Emperor Tomato Ketchup has always been one of my favourites. It’s way cool. But the subsequent albums left me unimpressed. A year and a half ago guitarist and vocalist Mary Hansen was killed tragically in a cycling accident. The band took some time off to recover and have recently emerged with a new album, Margerine Eclipse (dedicated to Hansen) and it’s stunning.



If you’re not familiar with this group, its songs are to be experienced. In the tradition of free form jazz or soukous music of Zaire, each song veers off in different directions, often surprising and captivating the listener with the textured, complex arrangements. Kind of like three songs in one. It never seems pompous or calculated. Just hellishly clever.



Vocalist Laetitia Sadier’s work on this album is supreme. She’s on her own now and when she sings on the song “Feel And Triple,” it’s heartbreaking. “Memory, of a friend/ Memory I need to embrace/ Fallen out, fallen out/ fallen out of our time and space.” This album is full of emotional, fragile moments of life and love. It’s an entertaining wake-up call. The rhythms and moods change at the drop of a hi hat. The soft guitar, joyful multi-tracked harmonies that start on the track “Bop Scotch” explode into raunchy surf guitar, then the French lyrics carry the song to its sombre finish.



“Dear Marge” is a precious pop tune. But four minutes later it’s got a blazing Keith Richards-type guitar riff (courtesy of Tim Gane) and rocks out till the end.



Stereolab and Air have a similar “cool” factor. But death has given Stereolab much needed depth; their creative juices are flow-ing again. The most life-affirming and sweet track on the album is “Sudden Stars.” Cosmic blips and harpsichord accompany the words, “Sweet smelling essences/ Hugs and smiles/ Sweet kisses/ Movements/ Toward me/ Embrace.” Okay, I did say depth. But I’m a pop slut. It’s that “sunshine, lollipops and rainbows everything” vibe that I can’t resist.



Good-bye hot-buttered soul, hello margarine pop.