Thanks to hardcore dance enthusiasts and the media, it seems as if every minuscule splinter of electronica has been labeled — except for what can generally be described as easy-listening techno. Trip-hop denoted this style before it peaked several years ago, but this unnamed subgenre has expanded, both sonically and emotionally, since then. It’s now typified by the brainy pulsations of such sublimely beautiful albums as Moby’s Play, Madonna’s Ray of Light, Everything but the Girl’s Walking Wounded, and Air’s Moon Safari. In the softly padding grooves of those discs, techno does become background music at retail clothing stores that strive to appeal to those under 30. But the new mellow techno — let’s dub it drowse-and-bass — also freshens up pop cliches with an infusion of electronic rhythms, becoming an intelligent, somewhat grown-up refuge for anyone too old for teen divas or too bored with dreary post-grunge rock.
William Orbit has been taming the savage beat, with varying success, ever since his days as a techno-lite act during the ’80s. It wasn’t until Madonna’s Ray of Light, which Orbit produced, that his style finally found a suitable home, and this second wind has lead him to resume his solo career with Pieces in a Modern Style, in which he drags drowse-and-bass even further in the direction of New Age by refashioning classical works as electronica mood music. Instead of actual string sections, pieces by Beethoven and Ravel, among others, are wrapped in twinkly, light-as-cotton-ball synthesizers and nudged along by only the slightest of rhythms. (Note to boomers: It’s your kids’ variation on Switched-On Bach.)
This tactic worked beautifully on the bauble-icious Ray of Light, but it largely backfires on Pieces in a Modern Style. Rather than reinventing these centuries-old compositions, Orbit’s snoozy-listening remakes only serve to surgically remove their innate drama. After a while, all of the tracks blur into one another. It’s telling that the most vibrant parts of the project are the two cinematic jungle remixes (neither done by Orbit) on an accompanying 14-minute CD. As for the central album, think of it as a relatively inexpensive stress-relief aid; health-conscious listeners can use it as accompaniment during their next massage, if they’re bored with the same old Peruvian New Age tapes.
Orbit’s tendency to flat-line the music also overtakes his other high-profile new project, Madonna’s remake of Don McLean’s death-of-rock chronicle ”American Pie.” What seemed an inspired, left-field idea winds up a decidedly flavorless slice of dessert: With its flat-as-an-American-highway mood, the update doesn’t shamelessly evoke nostalgia, but it doesn’t evoke much of anything else, either. That track — and a wan new Madonna ballad, ”Time Stood Still,” also coproduced with Orbit — are the centerpieces of the soundtrack to The Next Best Thing, Maddy’s latest attempt to become a movie star.
Orbit didn’t contribute to the other tracks on this various-artists collection, but his influence, if not his actual hand, is evident throughout. British singer Mandalay’s ”This Life” is an eerily precise impersonation of later-period Madonna, down to its affected phrasing and sound-bleep trinkets; the band Olive’s creamy remake of 10cc’s ”I’m Not in Love” and producer Metisse’s techno-lounge ”Boom Boom Ba” have the Orbit-style poptronica ambiance down cold. Stir in previously released tracks by Beth Orton and Moby, and the result is a cohesive and appealing soundtrack that wants you to think you’ve stumbled upon the hippest chill-out room in the world. The typically unrelenting, in-our-faces hook of a new Christina Aguilera number, ”Don’t Make Me Love You,” only makes one appreciate the relative subtleties of drowse-and-bass.
Speaking of which, few bands have exhibited a lighter touch than the French kitsch-pop ensemble Air, whose take on drowse-and-bass is downright cute; on Moon Safari, they made their old-school synthesizers sound cuddly. Following a rarities set, their latest not-quite-follow-up to 1998’s Moon Safari is a score of their own — in this case, to director Sofia Coppola’s film version of the darkly comic novel The Virgin Suicides. A collection of predominantly short, somber instrumental pieces, the album, like Moon Safari, is built around layers of textured keyboards. This time, though, the music is shrouded in a sort of smoke-machine haze, giving the record the feel of a great lost art-rock album of the ’70s. (Note to boomers: It’s your kids’ variation on Tangerine Dream.)
The Original Motion Picture Score for the Virgin Suicides is hardly a major work; several tracks recycle the elegiac main theme, and you miss the occasional vocal that enhanced Moon Safari. But it earmarks Air as leaders in the world of electronica scores while providing a valuable lesson in the creative potential of background music. As accompaniment for a film about the self-inflicted deaths of a group of suburban girls, The Virgin Suicides is both comely and unsettling. ”Dirty Trips” works itself up into a frenzy, like Muzak throwing a temper tantrum, while ”Bathroom Girl” breaks into cheesy ’70s-rock bombast, complete with a cornball arena-rock guitar fanfare. Air never forget the moment at which mood music becomes moody music. Pieces in a Modern Style: C- The Next Best Thing: B+ The Virgin Suicides: B+