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'Walkie Talkie,' Air 

In the jigsaw puzzle of music, electronica and America don't really fit together. While there are a handful of decent American artists creating decent electronica, it seems the States can never quite catch up with the electronic masterminds of Europe. It's not the kind of music that can be hammered out in a garage on a couple of Dad's old guitars, and it's largely the work of former deejays and experienced studio producers. Europe, obviously because of the popularity of dance music and techno, has a larger pool of musicians trained and ready to produce quality electronic music.

European artists in 2004 are already proving that they are still two steps ahead of American electro-nerds. The French heartthrobs of ambient music, Air, released Walkie Talkie in January -- their first album since 2000. Zero 7 followed in Air's footsteps in early March with When It Falls, a sexier, more soul-infused album than their 2001 Simple Things.

Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker of Zero 7, like so many other bands, were childhood friends. They adored music much like the Americans of their time -- listening to Charles Stepney and Ray Charles. But their UK roots took them in a different direction than many American listeners. The duo surprised audiences with their remix of Radiohead's "Climbing Up the Walls." Shortly thereafter, their 2001 album was compared to the soft and sultry melodies of Air. Zero 7 fans, however, insist that the bands are nothing alike.

The duo's new album taps into the group's soul, jazz and classical influences far more than Simple Things. Zero 7 sets a comfortable, welcoming tone from the get-go with the first track, "Warm Sound." Not only is the title phrase repeated, but so is the tranquil mood that permeates the rest of the album.

The band continues along the sexier side of electronica by adding in the vocals of Sia Furler, Sophie Barker and Tina Dicow (who sings on the catchy second track, "Home") -- all waspy female singers with gossamer soprano voices that Binns and Hardaker skillfully jazz up with their psychedelic beats.

This isn't the same group that listeners and critics alike fell in love with two years ago. Zero 7's second album reflects the band's desire to get back to their Quincy Jones and Ray Charles-inspired roots, and go from there to contribute a more soulful side to ambient electronica.

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