Although "soundtracky" isn't a term recognized by the folks at Webster's, everyone knows what it means -- instrumental music that may work when paired with cinematic imagery but seems empty and uninteresting without it. Detractors of Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin, a French twosome collectively known as Air, have used this pejorative against them for years now, unfairly suggesting that discs such as 1998's Moon Safari and last year's seductive, sublime Premiers Symptomes are as insubstantial as the elusive stuff for which the act is named. But while The Virgin Suicides, the duo's first attempt at an actual soundtrack (rather than the metaphorical kind), is an extension of the combo's previous work, not a repudiation of it, the recording's effortless moroseness has a heft to it that's impossible to ignore whether it's attached to the movie of the same name or not.The first number, "Playground Love," is the most conventionally songlike offering here: It includes the contributions of a vocalist, Gordon Tracks, and a ripe saxophone solo courtesy of Hugo Ferran. But the languorous sonics Dunckel and Godin layer beneath these elements are what truly makes the tune, transforming its simple melody into a creepy bit of melodrama.
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The efforts that follow are more fragmentary in nature, but they still manage to maintain a delicate mood. "Clouds Up" percolates and drones with pleasing aplomb, "Bathroom Girl" provides an eerie funeral for a friend, "Cemetery Party" pits a synthesized choir of angels against a progression that's pure Ennio Morricone, and "The Word "Hurricane'" uses a textbook description of the weather phenomenon, delivered in deadpan fashion, as the eye of an unexpectedly vigorous storm. "Dead Bodies," too, rides along at a fairly brisk tempo, juxtaposing a roiling keyboard figure and a rock backbeat with majestic synth washes that splash heavenward before being yanked to earth again by "Suicide Underground," which is introduced by a dour, mechanical-voiced narrator who declares, "The only thing we are certain of after all these years is the insufficiency of explanation."
This line applies to Dunckel and Godin as well. By all rights, Air's music shouldn't work, but through some cryptic alchemical process, it succeeds beyond all expectations -- for some listeners, anyway. Not everyone will be converted, but those who are will no longer think of the word "soundtracky" in quite the same way again.