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It's the smell of sweet success in the Air

The trendy French duo's colorful and memorable selections earn a rapturous response at the Hollywood Bowl.

September 28, 2004|Ernesto Lechner | Special to The Times

A cross between the atmospheric grandeur of Pink Floyd and the Euro-kitsch elegance of an Ennio Morricone soundtrack, the music of trendy French duo Air would seem like a natural for the "rock-band-meets-symphony-orchestra" approach.

At the same time, the delicate pop miniatures created by electronica geeks JB Dunckel and Nicolas Godin have so much inherent color and texture that the addition of an orchestra could easily result in sonic overkill.

As it turned out, Air's performance with orchestral backing on Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl -- the finale of a four-hour show that included memorable sets by Sondre Lerche and Stereolab -- was a success because it relied on the subtle arrangements of conductor Roger Neill and his ear for impressionistic effects.

Suddenly, Air began sounding like a long lost cousin of Maurice Ravel.

The experiment failed during those few instances when the orchestra Neill assembled for this performance was limited to the role of aural wallpaper -- cushions of strings adding little more than background mood to the procedures.

Neill's boldest choices provided the evening's happiest moments. The shimmering, two-harp intro to "Radian" was met with a collective gasp from the audience. On "Remember," the original mellotron line was replaced by swirling brass and strings, creating a vivid contrast with the duo's humorous use of the vocoder for some robotic vocalizing.

Whereas the tracks off Air's 1998 debut, "Moon Safari," got the most rapturous response, the material from this year's "Talkie Walkie" best showcased the duo's stylistic growth.

Performed sans orchestra, "Venus" began with a torpid beat and nonsensical lyrics before the entrance of bells and spidery keyboard lines transformed it into a sumptuous, caramel-like confection. The melody of "Alpha Beta Gaga" evoked the sing-along goofiness of a Saturday morning cartoon, but its funky bass and elaborate effects turned it into a slice of jubilant psychedelia.

Like a chef who is overly conscious not to overwhelm your palate, Air has a tendency to keep its shows short. At little over an hour, Sunday's performance was no exception, evoking the same feeling of fleeting sweetness that defines the band's music.

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