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French Hotshots Part Deux: M83 take the Air out of Air

OR: How to Discover a Euro Buzz Album in Lakeview Record Shops on One Cold Monday Night


By David Shuey


M83 prove it: The French can do cinematic rock like no-one else. Doing it twice in less than 12 months, no less; following the footsteps of legendary duo Air. Now the standby French pop exporters of the The Virgin Suicides soundtrack and 2004's classic Talkie Walkie have some official competition.


Déjà vu, all over again, as Yogi Berra would say.


As far as I can tell, M83's third full-length is a mash up of NIN (industrial terror) meets The Streets (concept album, story-telling lyrics) meets My Bloody Valentine (melancholy fuzzy guitars). M83's Before the Dawn Heals Us arrived in stores January 25. The real-life incarnation of this ethereal and jarring sound collage hops the Atlantic to play in Chicago for two dates (April 21 & 22), and hits 12 other cities, including Coachella Music Festival.


Before waiting for my editor to send a free copy, I invested my entertainment dollar in both. Call it the obsessive compulsive disorder that many music lovers have when the Buzz Band Flu hits your endocrine system.


Therefore, by my measure:

18 bucks for an album (unconsciously bought Monday)

+ 40 bucks for 3 tickets at the Empty Bottle (impulsively bought Wednesday)

+ 1500 words I am writing at this moment in utter devotion


= I am owed big-time!


Playing live, I have hopes these French techno-cats can deliver like the LAST saviors of electronic-based songs delivered in uncanny English lyricism, the sexy duo Royksopp. Royksopp are Norwegians who are not only good-looking in that Scandinavian pop star way, but artistically brilliant - connecting the line between synth-fueled soundscape and mental-visual landscape. I experienced this to gorgeous effect in 2003, both in Seattle to 500 clubbers and Glastonbury, UK to 5000 stoners.


In a nutshell, both bands are utterly exotic whilst accessible.


To compare further musically: Both force you to listen with your imagination. Close your eyes with Royksopp's Melody A.M., see Norway's lush green canopy of evergreen trees. Close your eyes with M83's Before the Dawn Heals Us, see Ghost in the Shell or Blade Runner. Behind either works, there is something undeniably organic and human underneath the ones and zeroes production.


First, let me admit my habit: I want to stop buying CDs. I want my music free, just like everyone else. Communism will finally work, social equality between the classes, all that jazz. The government will pay artists, and other utopian ideals. But when the compulsion hits, you go store-to-store until you find what you want, and lay down meager funds like any other consumer junkie.


And up until this purchase the last week of January, I only heard one M83 track on internet radio. But I knew they were the undiluted electronic-rock fix I needed to get me through this gloomy winter. China White Heroin would be cheaper.


I had this M83 affliction for less than a month - I knew I had to have this CD addition to my dusty electronic rack based on a single listen to the Top 93 Albums of 2004 countdown. On email, my friends in the Pacific Northwest chatted M83 up like they were the second coming of Underworld. Also, I haven’t laid actual cash down for an electronic CD since, well, Air. (Or !!! in June if you count the newest label in genre music: dance-punk).


Like I discovered with Vangelis at a young age: Electronic-based sounds CAN attain true beauty. If you submit.


Not knowing the title, or when it was out, I went hunting for the "latest M83 CD" in Chicago's yuppie restaurant canyon, Lincoln Park, Monday January 31 - and that is where this tale of consumer purchasing ends and begins.


After stepping across the street from Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, I ran into a mostly vinyl DJ shop complete with "Buy Chicago Hip-hop" handwritten sign over an entire CD section. I came up with nada, zip, zilch. When I sheepishly mentioned to a clerk about my pursuit of M83, a "hot new French electronic-rock act with vocals akin to the Chemical Brothers," the gentleman smirked, and directed my poseur ass to the Wicker Park standby, Reckless Records. It was 3 miles away. Yes, Second City lags when disc-hunting - it offers only a handful of independent shops where you can buy both rock and electronic (and indie and major-label) in one location. I was determined to continue my Best Buy and Virgin Records boycott.


Fortunately, my M83 stalking ended in less than 10 minutes. Continuing south on foot, I found their latest release at a quasi-indie store, Hi-Fi Records at 2570 North Clark Street. (Tower Records is minutes away, but fuck 'em.) The Hi-Fi manager was describing their buy-sell policy to his friend in the store, and pointing out how Internet CD sales keep them out of the red. " is what's keeping us afloat," I overheard him saying. In 2005, this is the business model that keeps a local record shop's doors open, and keeps me out of Circuit City. The proprietor quickly fingered his lone NEW copy of M83, pulled it out, handed it over. I also proudly saw Seattle's bestselling 2003 album, Maktub’s Khronos in the same M bin.


I got the itch. Laid down the cash to the local biz. Left. Once outside the doors, my first complete listen was surreal: Blasting away on headphones under my frosty head-wrap, walking towards downtown with a bottle of wine tucked in my coat, stealing nips to keep me warm, I was a visage of decadent glee. The wind was thick, as well was the ice I was dodging. And thickest of all was the STOP-START MELODRAMA rattling off of each track. This shit was fresh. And mysterious as hell, as I ask myself, "What is this album about?"


My favorite song came through immediately: Track 2, "Don't Save Us from the Flames." This is the one you might hear on the college radio stations. There is a buried chorus of "Tina! Tina!" and during the chatty verse, an apt description of a car-wreck complete with bloody detail to make Quentin Tarantino flinch:
"Out of the flames / A piece of brain in my hair / The wheels are melting/A ghost is screaming your Name ... Liquid metal through my veins"


As it was, I had Aussie red wine in my veins. And when the drums kicked in, I went off.


Dancing, skipping, smiling - it was good American fun for a Monday Date Night of … One. (Do not mock, we all need a night like this. A solo viewing of Oscar-nominated Sideways, some Indian paneer cheese with a bottle of Shiraz-Cabernet, topped off with a new French band discovery - who needs coital action when you have cinema, food, booze and music?)


I continued my music-fueled walkabout. Taxis passed by, possibly thinking: "Hmm, psychotic dancing punk. Move along. Move along."


I was going to wait it out for a bus.


Mirroring the visual aspects of the album, I felt an out-of-body experience. Like I was watching my own story from an alien POV: I was a character, in my own movie, waltzing along Lincoln Park at night, fumbling towards giant well-lit skyscrapers. Holding in my hands … What else? An album with giant skyscrapers at night on the cover. A truly human experience, interesting only to the individual - finding excitement in the synchronicity.


And that is music in a nutshell - a wholly individual experience.


As for the M83 soundtrack to this myopic event? It was intriguing, and not mush on the brain like 90% of electronica. It was intelligent, thoughtful, and precise. Perfection? Are such subjective judgments attainable for a tipsy human? Sure, why not?


It is quite possibly a masterpiece. Time and a few more listens will tell. Most of all, it deflated my expectations. It was not the overpowering techno I usually surrender to. More cold tundra ambient, with some lava fissures underneath. Not surprising: I read that Anthony Gonzalez, the prodigy who made this M83 album, is influenced from everything from German ambient to Brian Eno to avant garde rock legends Sonic Youth. As for an American cinema influence, it delivers a stunning cover photograph of an austere helicopter master shot of a cityscape-at-night worthy of Michael Mann's best work in Collateral or Heat. (Which city? Berlin? Dallas? I've been googling like mad for this trivia bit.)


The album plays out just like the cover-art, like a hip fantastical movie. Or four. Based on the official website tracklisting, it appears to be split into 4 "quads" - or series of songs that tie together thematically. I will not pretend to understand its conceit, though I will describe it. Towards the end, the blood curling terror kicks in. There is a voice-over of American actress Kate Moran that is as pulse-pounding as any "Twin Peaks" episode with Bob the teen-killer on the attack. Listeners may shudder, or laugh. In "Car Chase Terror!" the actress freaks out and describes to her child that a sinister murderer is coming after the both of them, then gently says, "Go back to sleep angel / Mom will keep the devil away." Is she crazy? Is this real or her imagination? Who knows? Like any fine film, this concept album works on many levels.


So no faux American accents get murdered by the French, thank God. Just a Frenchman orchestrating the would-be murder of a deranged maternal character. Surrender to this artistically risky experiment, and M83 will warp your brain with an escapist succession of attractive sounds, songs, stories and textures thematically linked to existential death. La musique est très belle!


Beautiful indeed. But psychotic enough to leave you with a nasty hang-over.


Air would be jealous.


Before the Dawn Heals Us 8.5/10. Released January 25, 2005.
M83 play at the Empty Bottle on April 21 & 22, 2005.


More on M83:


Before the Dawn Heals Us Tracklisting:

A1. Moonchild

A2. Don't Save us From the Flames

A3. In the Cold I'm Standing

A4. Farewell / Goodbye


B1. Fields, Shorelines and Hunters

B2. *

B3. I Guess I'm Floating

B4. Teen Angst

B5. Can't Stop


C1. Safe

C2. Let Men Burn Stars

C3. Car Chase Terror!

C4. Slight Night Shiver


D1. A Guitar and a Heart

D2. Lower Your Eyelids to Die with the Sun



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