The French have a well-documented poor track record with rock and roll, and only recently have they made noteworthy progress in dance music. But what progress! Air, ignored by their countrymen, went Top 5 in England with Moon Safari, which prompted Sofia Coppola to hire them for the Virgin Suicides soundtrack. Daft Punk did Homework, sold 2 million copies worldwide, and co-Punk Thomas Bangalter’s castoff as Stardust—”Music Sounds Better With You”—monopolized the dance charts. By that time, Dimitri From Paris had already conquered fashion runways on the coattails of lounge, and MC Solaar producers La Funk Mob had become sought-after remixers. Renamed Cassius, they dared Prince by titling their album 1999. To cap it off, Madonna made Mirwais make Music, and all of a sudden pop’s ugliest ducklings ruled the roost, laying their Fabergé eggs all over the masses. But as the economy is teaching us yet again, the price of excess is recession. Similarly, the volatile commodity that is French electronica, having emerged so rapidly from déclassé origins to fabulously inflated market value, is always at risk of a rapid descent back to musique fromage. The turning point between acceptance and backlash might be now. Where Daft Punk’s Discovery attests to the lasting quality of mindlessness, Air’s 10,000 Hz Legend showcases the mindless quality of lasting.
Consider that both duos are led by men who pretend to be robots. Wearing a cyborg mask is a theatrical trick; it must be played with tongue firmly in cheek or it comes off as cloyingly as mime. Air’s pretensions to mechanicalness are neither fully formed nor entirely intentional. But Daft Punk had a precedent. Their earliest incarnation was an early-’90s lo-fi outfit called Darlin’ that released a few singles on Duophonic. To some degree this made them protégés of Stereolab, the semi-Gallic masters of recycling cheese into cool. The Lab made friends with tackiness because they recognized the genuine pleasure in being insincere—a delicate pastime, since it depends so much on an audience understanding the joke. Juxtaposing feigned amateurism and antique synthesizers against Marxist dogma and poststructuralist theory, they suggested connections—with a smirk. Mass culture respected Stereolab’s brand identity, but wouldn’t sit still for so obscure an in-joke. Lose the philosophy, it demanded. Keep the dopey Moogs.
Like good apostles, Daft Punk replaced Marxism and guitars with dancefloor Zen. Having learned from their elders how to turn a bad stupid idea into a good stupid idea, they now only appear in the media wearing shiny Robocop helmets and cybergloves. At 26 and 27, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo must be too young to remember how exasperating it was when the Earons wore the same costumes for the same privacy-preserving reasons in 1985. Dumber still, they’re feeding the press lines about “showing their new robot skin,” and explaining that they were accidentally transformed by a studio accident on December 31, 1999. In other words, they’re the only victims of the Y2K bug. Household names would seem ludicrous in ‘droid drag; on personalities as unfamous as DP it looks silly at best, and at worst like a promotional gimmick for their CD-ROM/Internet marketing strategy, Daft Club. Happily, from Discovery‘s human foibles you get the sense they know exactly how full of shit they are. Their 1996 debut Homework‘s most memorable quality was its ability to induce a migraine before the seventh track. Excited to be the first Franco-discophiles to exploit the power of bass, DP turned it up all the way and set the kick drum at the tempo of a harsh cranial assault with a copy of Les Miserables. They called it Homework because it was recorded in Bangalter’s house, but it was music made for raves. The Neanderthal beats, obnoxious synths, and repetitive content—try saying nothing but “around the world” for seven minutes—could all be packed up and removed at the first sight of a gendarme. To listen end-to-end was to defy the liquefaction of your gray matter. Daft Punk played house music like Arnold Schwarzenegger played the Terminator.
Despite the cyborg getups, Discovery is a more complicated, human record. The closest Homework ever got to subject matter was a list of “Teachers” (mostly DJs, but Brian Wilson too), and forget musicianship. On Discovery, the bionic duo attempt a little classical concertino in the middle of the instrumental “Aerodynamic,” and again in “Veridis Quo.” “Digital Love” rips off a catalog of ’70s AOR: Doobie Brothers guitars are interrupted by a Supertramp electric piano riff with a Rick Wakemanesque solo in the middle; it has a funky companion in the tender slow-jam “Something About Us.” The hit “One More Time,” with house veteran Romanthony as guest automaton, remodels Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration,” not that the accompanying Japanimation video illuminates any connections. Herbie Hancock might get jealous of “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” a virtuosic vocoder-and-keys motivational romp. In the four years between these two albums, the Punks have become talented keyboardists and begun taking pleasure in more complicated song structures. Tired of constant bass, for variety they’ll solo the mids to produce that filter-disco AM-radio EQ that François K. made a Body & Soul staple. Enthusiasm, inspired silliness, and craft abound on Discovery. And if the second Romanthony collaboration, “Too Long,” gets old before its 10 minutes are up, you can’t say you weren’t warned.
Air’s metallic incarnations tend to be artificially unintelligent: “We are synchronizers/We are electronic performers,” declares a digitally lowered voice at the onset of 10,000 Hz Legend, with an accent that makes it pronounce the word “EE-LEC-tronic.” The next song, the Radiohead parody “How Does It Make You Feel,” is a romantic monologue spoken by the Macintosh Simpletext voice “Whisper,” which lays on us the awkward compliment “You are the most beautiful entity that I have ever dreamed of,” and admits that he is “spacing out with you.” But for all the automation and attention to surfaces, the album still plods—mechanically, you might say, if you had in mind a warped cassette recorder—making even Beck sound like Eeyore. Two-thirds of the way in, 10,000 Hz scrapes against two sublimely bad tracks, “People in the City” (pee-PUL in ze ci-TEE) and the jaw-harp shuffle “Wonder Milky Bitch” (wan-DA mil-KEE-bitch), whose target one can only assume is Liesje Sadonius, lead singer of the Belgian band Hooverphonic, who in 1998 released the LP Blue Wonder Power Milk. Even if that explanation isn’t specious conjecture, “Wonder Milky Bitch” is a mild dis from another deep, bored, malfunctioning Hal: “You don’t wear cosmetic/You don’t like arithmetic.” Take that, Liesje!
Air have recorded 10,000 Hz Legend in a style so deadpan it could have been written and performed by androids; Daft Punk have put a robotic sheen on an album livelier and more varied than R2-D2 would be capable of producing. “Machines give me some freedom,” claims the introductory borg of Air’s “Electronic Performers.” If there’s anything to be said for masks, it’s that they can let self-conscious people lose their inhibitions. Ironically, Daft Punk have found more freedom than Air by deliberately obscuring their identities and imagining they’ve fused with their instruments. The pull toward such mischief is irresistible for studio wonks who love retro drum machines, but it does get old fast. Look what it did for the Earons.
Air play Hammerstein Ballroom June 21.