wish this had worked out. With a new Air record supposedly due on Astralwerks early next year, I’d love to fall back on threadbare critical clichés about how JB Dunckel’s solo debut as Darkel is at least good enough to “tide you over.” Unfortunately, Dunckel refuses to abide by such a formulaic fan-tease. Darkel is instead just a sugar-fueled snack you give in to around four in the afternoon and forget by quarter after: falsely filling, well-packaged, and ultimately just more plump for your Diesels.
With that said, Dunckel’s always had a concise ear for simply patterned, melancholic melodies, and much of Darkel is, if not progressively engrossing in the manner of 10,000 Hz Legend for example, sneakily tuneful. Recorded on his own over the last year and a half, Darkel owes far more to the early post-Beatles solo records of George Harrison and John Lennon than to French forebears like Gainsbourg. “At the End of the World” would have fit snugly on either All Things Must Pass or Living in the Material World, with its gently rolling piano and crisp, ringing guitar, while “My Own Sun” is the kind of gorgeous, galloping clap-along Lennon knocked out with “Oh Yoko!” or “Bring on the Lucie (Freda People).” The hollow-bellied lovesickness of “Pearl,” however, is one of the album’s few cuts you could imagine on an Air album, albeit in a fleshier state—here Dunckel shaves it down to bell-tones and trickling piano chords and the result is a song that ultimately feels too naked for such a facile melody. It’s clear Dunckel has ideas at which he can tease, but he seems to have poked and flicked at them without taking them in hand here. And that’s the problem with even Darkel’s best material: it’s singable without being memorable, instantly dazzling and an instant-after’s what else ya got.
When Dunckel moves away from pop immediacy, the results are often puzzling. “Earth” is one of the record’s two quasi-instrumentals. Atop a preset trap-set knock-about—like Doug Clifford with mechanical limbs—and an anonymous bass and synth combo, Dunckel mutters hackneyed environmentalist reminders: “We belong to the earth / It doesn’t belong to us.” And then he starts again, from the same place; he repeats that phrase. Many. Times. By the twelve-minute mark, you realize only six have passed.
“How Brave Are You” is cloying and firm where “Earth” was detached and bloated, deprived of enough momentum to fill out Dunckel’s breathy flutes, steady piano progressions, and sparse storytelling. Closer “Bathroom Spirit”—the record’s only true instrumental—again tests your remote trigger-finger, carrying warbling synths and bluesy Rhodes to the six-minute mark where zero would have accomplished as much. In fact, the album’s entire back-end is filled with oddly embryonic song-sketches and banal musical interludes; even given the difficulties of tailoring a movie soundtrack for album-format, The Virgin Suicides soundtrack felt more devoted to completing its thoughts, rounding out its more awkward intentions. Suffice it to say, for those of you still thumbing the gilt of Yorke without Greenwood from your fingers, don’t even rub at Dunckel without Godin. You may not wash it off ‘til early 2007, when, hopefully, you won’t remember you had to.