Did some hip indie-film director invite Air to do a soundtrack but then lose his funding? That's the only explanation I can think of for Pocket Symphony's puzzling release as a standard studio album. The French duo's retro-chic electronica proved effective in setting the mood for Sophia Coppola's alienated youths in her last three movies. But soundtracks exist to create ambience without distracting from the action, a criterion that doesn't necessarily work for stand-alone albums. Pocket Symphony is fatally ignorable.
Air still know their way around a gorgeous, spacey sound palette—glittering touches of bells and Japanese strings, round tones radiating from a bank of synths, warm bass grooves—and producer Nigel Godrich allows the notes to hover indefinitely. The album settles into a sedated trance, content with its place in the background.
As a result, the standout tracks are the ones offering even a little movement, like the rolling piano line on the gauzy "Once Upon a Time," or the tension-building acoustic guitar on "Left Bank." On "Mer Du Japon," the band edges closer to their old almost-danceable sound (you know, that faintly inviting beat that gestures toward the dance floor without ever stepping foot on it). But elsewhere, momentum disappears and automated tranquility kicks in. (Though, strangely enough, "Somewhere Between Waking and Sleeping," a lullaby sung by the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon, is one worth staying awake for.)
Maximum enjoyment of Pocket Symphony requires some cinematic-sized accompaniment. Call an estranged parent. Gaze out of an airplane window. Come of age.