Such Hot Blood
(Island Def Jam)
Produced by Jacquire King
Release Date: Tuesday, April 30
There are so many ghosts. Whether it’s the lingering scent of a departed lover or the voices of departed family members, the feeling of loss is profound, and dealing with loss over and over again can disfigure you. But despite that, there is also strength to be gathered from all those memories and the ceaseless voices. Since The Airborne Toxic Event’s first album in 2008, loss has been a central theme. It’s been a yin and yang of heartbreak and hope, mournful melancholy and ecstatic release, untempered passion and raw emotions. What has changed is that now the band has a richer, more varied palette at their disposal with which to tell their stories. There has been a progression from their debut to All At Once to this new album in terms of the narrator’s viewpoint. It began with the immediate gut reaction to pain and hurt, told from within. The second time around, it was an assessment from the road, with the miles of separation lending objectivity to the storytelling. That’s even more pronounced now, as the view pulls out wider. It’s the sort of perspective that comes naturally with the passage of time.
The band took a bit of a risk here with Such Hot Blood. With its deeply personal narrative and chock full of sentimental, romantic ballads, it’s not going to be what everyone wants to hear. This is not an album you can dance to, unless perhaps it’s a dramatic waltz. On All At Once, they wanted to show the world what they could do, and prove that they weren’t fixed to any one genre. For this third album, there was less pressure to “prove themselves,” leaving them free to explore where each individual song took them.
This beautiful album requires complete immersion with a good pair of headphones to realize how closely bound the song arrangements are with Mikel’s introspective mini novellas. Anna, Daren, Noah and Steven each add their trademark flourishes—a pinch of piano notes here, a dash of viola melody there, a vibrant guitar burst, a percolating bass, a dramatic drum roll… There are also cameo appearances of everything else imaginable, from horns to mandolin, glockenspiel to a touch of tambourine, synthesizer to string section, and even a wistful bit of whistling. Barely a measure goes by that the instrumentation doesn’t change—something goes away, something else dances in. Melodies ebb and flow throughout each song in a complex weave, with poetic lines and repeated phrases that cast light on key issues, the repetitions themselves a metaphor for getting “stuck” in repeating life patterns. What results is a rich soundtrack that tells the story in Greek chorus fashion.
As it wouldn’t be an Airborne album without songs about death and girls, it wouldn’t be a ‘musings’ review without purist whining. So here it is: when you find yourself with a rare sparkling stone from the depths of a magical ocean, you don’t need to throw a coat of paint on it. Someone either doesn’t trust that this band’s stellar songwriting and performance is “good enough” to generate sales—or is so cynical and jaded about their customers that they believe they need to add a layer of shellac to manufacture an acceptable “mainstream indie rock” album. Fortunately it still sounds like the band is playing in the same room together—thank god for that! But yes, the album is overproduced. I’m not talking about the band’s perfectionism during the recording process, as they’re known for their meticulous craftsmanship and we wouldn’t have it any other way. What I’m speaking of is the liberally-applied reverb on the vocals and other studio tomfoolery to smooth over any rough edges. Simply put, they don’t need it. Airborne’s songwriting gravitas and musical sophistication has risen exponentially over the years, and one only has to hear one of their lo-fi radio station acoustic sessions to know that this band needs no magic tricks. One might be wise to resist the temptation of the well-equipped studio in the interest of preserving the art of human imperfection.
Song by Song
Sharing something precious and painful with the world lessens its impact and brings the hurt out into the light. Revealing it takes away its power… somewhat. Nagging regrets and the envy of distant lovers remains. Alone now, the memories wash over and through on a late night drive around the city. This is a musical dream that moves between nostalgia and angst.
Though there are so many pretty and powerful moments on this album, “Timeless” is clearly the album’s pièce de résistance in terms of the song’s slow build, epic and breathless chorus and especially its subject matter. This is a contemplation about mortality, the passage of time and the yearning for the innocence of youth. Mikel’s frame of reference is personal and poignant—his grandmother’s passing. He sings of the spirit that continues beyond death and the comfort of a soulmate who transcends time and space. Musically majestic, strings and percussion wash over like the endless waves of life’s continuum.
“As she disappeared alone in the darkness
I felt her spirit stay in the room
And I wish that our lives were just endless
’cause it’s all too short, and I’m leaving soon.”
Their breathtaking official video, directed by Mikel Jollett, brings to life several artistic references as it speaks of the impermanence of our lives. Our life’s works and earnest endeavors, in the end, are lost to the winds and the sands of time.
What’s In A Name
One of the few straight-ahead rockers with a definite Springsteen influence (though his poignant style of storytelling informs the whole album). Pure adrenaline with scenes of angst-driven youth, delinquency, danger, defiance and possibly a bad reputation, a bad rap? Seems like it could be a follow-up or companion piece to “Gasoline” from the first album. There’s definitely the same nervous energy and restlessness, which is perfectly translated in the song’s heart-pumping pace. “We were so young, we were so wrong…”
Such shattering intimacy in this stunning folk ballad. There’s a yearning for the familiar comfort of someone very deeply missed, a dream of a lost love returning, a connection reforged. We make our choices, there are always sacrifices, and then comes contemplation of the strange passage of time. A warm memory flows like a ghost into a cold house on a dark, stormy night and fills the heart. The song begins and ends acoustically, wistfully. There’s a slow, beautiful build-up of instruments as feelings become more passionate. Slowly rising ethereal harmonies near the end of the song take it to an even higher level. It drops back down and ends quietly with acoustic guitar and piano. Gorgeous.
“You face in these pictures looks like a poem
your eyes lit up like a river stone
Your body so much like a blanket thrown
On a warm bed at night
like a house in a storm.”
“And I surprise myself sometimes, the way the days unfold and this road unwinds
You tell me you see it too, and the miles feel like inches when I think of you.”
Musically one of the most breathtaking songs on the album. From the beginning piano notes, soon joined by simple viola and bass melodies and then building into emotional peaks and valleys, the story is told of a delicately fragile relationship. There are the inevitable entanglements caused by two people wanting different things. The complicated tale is told mostly through the music. The lyrics, while poetically stated, are minimal and trance-like snippets of memory, as we’re walked through a personal struggle. Stunning vocals from Mikel and Anna, with Anna taking the lead for the first time, treating us to that lovely angelic voice.
“Do you really want to hear that?
Why is everyone staring?
Were you happy? Were you honest?
Did you ever believe that any of this was real?”
“Ok, just slow down now
This road’s not safe for driving
All this time I’ve waited just for you to let me in.”
Bride and Groom
This absolutely exquisite song exemplifies everything I love about this band. It’s heartfelt, personal, playful, poetic, sentimental, sweet and chock full of punk angst and self-deprecating humor. Muted horns, acoustic guitar and mandolin builds to a sweet country-folk vibe, with its charming nod to the Song of the Sirens mythology and relationship fail narrative punctuated by delicate stray piano notes. Perfection. This feels like the sad conclusion of the miscommunication from “Safe.” Favorite line: “like the beating of the drum in a parade of the insane.”
“And I crashed upon your rocks
When I heard your voice singing
And I begged for your love
With my busted ears still ringing
My hopeful heart repeating
You are more than the promise of the sea.”
“And we’ll meet again someday and we’ll toast the cursed ruins
of the bride I’ll never be… and the groom.”
A punchy little rock song that borders on rockabilly. Noah, besides having the look, really tears it up on mandolin. A fun little ditty about an all-consuming, blinding lovesick obsession.
This Is London
If each of these songs is a mini movie soundtrack, then “This Is London” is a full-on West End musical. Its script is Airborne’s “30 shows in 30 days” tour, a cold and wet whirlwind through the UK back in November of 2008. It is the musical expression of what those heady days must have felt like, on the heels of NME pronouncing the band as the “Next Big Thing” (only to resoundly trash them three years later). It relates the dizzying experience of all those backwater towns whirling past as they drank and slogged their way through. The song also addresses the “tall poppy syndrome” in Britain and that country’s tendency to turn on musicians once they achieve any modest level of success. “This is London, the place where you’re a god or a disgrace…” Throbbing bass, piano, percussion and viola begin, joined by a lone flute and strings madly swirling around in epic grandeur. The tune surprisingly clocks in at just over four minutes, though it feels like you’ve sat through an entire soundtrack album. Which you immediately want to play again. Oh yeah, and there’s that girl in it, too.
“This is London, the place where you get lost without a trace
Among the beautiful remains of this shattered human race
All the words that go unsaid, all the sacrifices of the dead
We’ll fall quietly into the past or we’ll just burn these streets instead
In the clamoring of the crowd, you think, I’ll just stay quiet instead.”
The Fifth Day
This is a dreamy “orchestral folk ballad” that is fast becoming one of Airborne’s trademark sounds, which they execute so beautifully. Starting out muted and soft, Anna and Mikel’s very pretty dual vocals are the highlight here, along with a sprinkling of pixie dust. It slowly builds, ushering in horns, strings, synthesizer and electric guitar. Introduced by Anna’s whistled melody and Daren’s epic drum roll, the song explodes into
a dramatic grand production swirling overhead and presided over by what I can only refer to as an angelic chipmunk chorus. At first I found this bizarre and disturbing, but it’s beginning to grow on me. Though I do still prefer the stark beauty and imperfection of Mikel’s live falsetto shrill, as heard at their Red Rocks show.
Similar in feel to “A Letter To Georgia” though more lyrically lighthearted, “Elizabeth” closes out the new album on a sweet, playful note. With the simple guitar melody, softly sung vocals and light touches of instrumental accompaniment, this cute song about a girl who wants Mikel to write a song about her is in lovely contrast to this album’s big orchestrated pieces. Though it’s tough to get an inebriated club crowd to shut up, fans do love to hear these quieter songs. As with “Georgia,” “Duet” and “Graveyard Near The House,” I expect “Elizabeth” to be a frequent show request.
In a nutshell: though I would have preferred much less production, Such Hot Blood is a musical and lyrical masterpiece. Favorite tracks: Timeless, Bride and Groom, Safe, The Storm, This Is London.
Watch Airborne performing on Jimmy Kimmel Thursday, May 2!
East Coast Shows
(5/8 thru 5/11 w/Irish band Kodaline)
5/8 Washington, DC – 9:30 Club *SOLD OUT*
5/9 Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
5/10 Boston, MA – House of Blues *SOLD OUT*
5/11 Burlington, VT – Higher Ground
5/12 Camden, NJ – 104.5 Birthday Show w/Phoenix, Paramore, Silversun Pickups, Passion Pit & others at Susquehanna Bank Center
6/18 New York, NY – Central Park, Summerstage w/The Calder Quartet and “guest orchestra” *FREE SHOW*
6/19 Providence, RI – Lupo’s (w/The Joy Formidable)
6/20 Clifton Park, NY (near Albany) – Upstate Concert Hall (formerly Northern Lights) (w/Leagues)