Forget about Saturday Night Fever: The real epoch-making moment in the '70s dance scene was Donna Summer's “Love to Love You Baby.”
The Bee Gees' falsettos may have represented disco's mainstream breakthrough, but “Love to Love You Baby””s orgasmathon—emboldened in its extended remix—was to prove more influential for legions of '90s dance-music DJs and producers. The song took its sweet time to go nowhere in particular, and it mixed analog keyboards with acoustic instruments to evoke sexy suggestion. Produced by Giorgio Moroder, “Love to Love You Baby”’s unique sound can be detected today in the unerring cardiac beat of Daft Punk's Parisian disco hit “Musique,” as well as the two-fingers-on-the-Casio minimalist groove pulsing through “Cosmic Bird,” an astonishing song by another French team, Air.
Daft Punk and Air are but two of the acts now seducing an increasing number of American listeners, as domestic labels release a steady flow of hoppin' French records. In fact, the Gallic dance scene is more successful than ever, as evidenced on records ranging from DJ Cam's muffled hip hop and Laurent Garnier's classic house to Dimitri From Paris's goofy Sacrebleu and the various club styles compiled on three excellent SourceLab compilations.
Air's luxuriant debut album, Moon Safari (Source/Caroline), encapsulates the French scene at its finest. It's incredibly accessible, weaving pop, lounge, even soul into a dense down-tempo tapestry. The two young men who constitute Air—Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin—grew up in the wealthy Parisian suburb of Versailles. Godin is an architect and Dunckel teaches math and physics, but their music is far from academic. In fact, Moon Safari is as comfortable as a deep armchair or a well-worn pair of slippers.
At the same time, it's more outlandish than these two comparisons might suggest. Those who associate current dance music with frantic beats and foreboding samples, or assume that all “techno” is “cold” and “impersonal,” will have to revise their opinions: Air's music unfurls lazily, yet it's as catchy and precisely crafted as the best pop music of the 1960s. (It is no coincidence that the strings on the album are arranged by British veteran David Whitaker, who worked with French iconoclast Serge Gainsbourg in the 1960s, or that pop icon Françoise Hardy sings on a forthcoming track.)
In short, this is dance music you can just listen to. “Ce matin là” combines a carpet of violins with flute, trombone, and gently stroked acoustic guitar, while “Talisman” floats by on even thicker strings and a laid-back, yet funky, beat. Compared to these songs, the two tracks with guest vocalist Beth Hirsch come across as awkward; her pedestrian coo only distracts from the atmosphere so effortlessly created by Godin and Dunckel. Sonic signatures—shimmering strings, butter-soft bass, liquid Rhodes piano riffs, and muted horns—punctuate and underline melodic hooks. The resulting music doesn't hit listeners over the head: It warmly invites them in.
In many ways, Air is typical of a French new wave. The musicians may have their particular idiosyncrasies and styles, but French DJs also share a common sensibility rooted in their shared taste for ambiance over bluster. They are more organic and melody-driven than German producers (whose music often sounds as if it's entirely created by androids), and they eschew the British taste for rock riffs and rock-star postures, as seen in the Prodigy and Chemical Brothers. The French new wave's pop-historic takeoff points are very different as well. Unlike many of their American and British peers, the French don't really find their inspiration in Detroit techno, R&B, or the more experimental Krautrock acts of the early '70s. They turn instead to easy listening, soundtracks, Moroder's disco sound of the late 1970s, and a homegrown pop tradition dominated by immaculate melodies and florid arrangements.
A certain levity is pervasive here. Acts such as Ollano, Motorbass, Dimitri From Paris, and even Daft Punk tend to prefer a lighter approach that ignores breakbeat assaults and/or antiseptic drum'n'bass wizardry. For the best of these producers and musicians—Etienne de Crécy, Marc Collin, and Ludovic Navarre, for instance—the studio remains a humane environment. Even when Air accelerates their tempo—as on “Kelly, Watch the Stars” or “Sexy Boy,” the first single off Moon Safari—they still communicate an almost poetic sense of wide-eyed trippyness. “La femme d'argent” revolves around a bass line that by itself is catchier than most of the songs you're likely to hear on the radio this year; add an understated piano and the light gurgles of a Moog synthesizer, and you have yet another instant classic. In its unassuming way, Moon Safari is quietly revolutionary, borrowing elements from the pop past to offer music that functions as a modern refuge from the intrusions of daily life. When asked how music compares to architecture, Godin typically answers as follows: “For me it's the same thing, you are building shelters.”
[Editor's note: This review originally appeared in the February 4, 1998 issue of City Pages.]