Billboard CD reviews: Air, Devendra Banhart

Fri Oct 23, 2009 10:02pm EDT
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NEW YORK (Billboard) - Few bands live up to their names as well as Air. The French electronic duo makes gravity-defying disco-pop that can be as foreboding as it is frothy (see the 2000 soundtrack to "The Virgin Suicides"). Air's fifth studio album, "Love 2," hinges on Joey Waronker, a percussionist who toured with the band on its last outing. His delicate playing helps bring all of those potentially spacey piano arpeggios back down to earth, resulting in a sound that resembles the lo-fi pop for which Air first became known, more than the cosmic symphony of recent efforts. Ditties like "Sing Sang Sung" include a vibraphone, wind chimes and tambourine, while "African Velvet" has horns and light-handed syncopation from Waronker. It's not always immediately clear if the group is being tongue-in-cheek ("Tropical Disease" is so lounge-y and psychedelic that it could be retrofitted into a Roger Moore-era James Bond flick), but one thing is certain: Style trumps substance in this particular breath of Air.


ALBUM: WHAT WILL WE BE (Reprise Records)

Devendra Banhart's major-label debut, "What Will We Be," was recorded with the same collaborators who graced his 2007 "Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon." This time the quintet holed up for two months in a Northern California cabin, and the resulting collection from the idiosyncratic singer-songwriter is intimate, experimental and ultimately accessible. The first single, "Baby," is a breezy yet bass-heavy love song about "learning to let in all the laughter," while "Chin Chin & Muck Muck" is something of a vanguard mini-review, changing acts between swinging jazz, cabaret torch and a twinkling chant. Banhart's Venezuelan childhood peeks through with Spanish lyrics on "Angelika" and "Brindo," and "Rats" is a full-fledged psychedelic-rock jam. Throughout the set, Banhart's expressive vocals are the real pleasure point; the artist may be known for his self-supported aura of knowing peculiarity, but his voice carries a frankness that -- save some well-applied reverb -- is gratifyingly free of modern affectation.


ALBUM: DEVIL'S HALO (Downtown Music)

Though not as sprawlingly ambitious or experimental as the 2007 "The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams," Meshell Ndegeocello's eighth release, "Devil's Halo," neatly straddles a line between challenging and accessible, with some of the tightest and catchiest compositions she's yet brought forth. Listeners might not get that from the opening song, "Slaughter," which moves from liquid-like verses to crash-bang choruses with a Radiohead-style prog vibe, but tracks like "Mass Transit" and "Blood on the Curb" channel melodic, if slightly subversive, New Wave influences -- and the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde would pay large for the leathery attitude of "Lola." Ndegeocello lays jazz overtones atop of "White Girl," employs old-school synthesizers through "Die Young" and brings out front-porch Americana for "Crying in Your Beer." She also uses a big beat and subtle dissonance to turn Melvin Riley's "Love You Down" into a Joni Mitchell-flavored tone poem. "I transform myself for maximum attraction," Ndegeocello sings in "Mass Transit." It works.   Continued...