screams, whispers and songs from planet earth

The Airborne Toxic Event: All At Once

The Airborne Toxic Event: All At Once – Out Today!
See the band live at the House of Blues, Wednesday, May 11 – buy tickets
~ For the abridged version of this article, please see Ryan’s Smashing Life ~

Growing Pains

My god, this is excruciating! I’ve been enjoying The Airborne Toxic Event since first listening to demo tracks in 2008, and followed their steady ascent, which for me began at a downtown Boston Irish bar for about 150 people. They released their wonderful debut album on Majordomo, and proceeded to tour for the next 2-1/2 years in support of it. That album grabbed hold of my ears and wouldn’t let go, yet I now find myself approaching their follow-up, nearly three years later, with a curious mix of anticipation and trepidation. Why? Because in that time, they signed with Island Records, amassed a large audience of “casual listeners” with their radio hit, “Sometime Around Midnight,” and spent 2010 in a fancy Hollywood studio with world-renown producer Dave Sardi (Band of Horses, The Walkmen, Oasis). It made me a little nervous. This is the first time I stumbled upon a band early on, and not 10 years after everyone else, so I’m new to this whole “grappling with success” thing. I’m not sure how the band is coping, but as for myself, not terribly well.

Perceptions

Airborne Tox, for some reason, has managed to divide opinion into two polar opposite camps: worshiping followers, and poisonous venom spewers. At the center of this maelstrom is one extremely talented and ridiculously hard-working group of people making what I consider some damn compelling music. A number of people have gotten something stuck in their teeth about this band that they can’t get out. Perhaps they’re disturbed by Airborne’s success story, believing it all came too easily. After a year in a friend’s home studio crafting their debut, 350 gigs to promote it, and then straight into another year recording this one, the band might beg to differ. The major label involvement, heavy radio airplay, and an army of mainstream fans may be off-putting. Or they’re uncomfortable with the unapologetic sentimentality and romanticism of the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Mikel Jollett, who once said that a writer can’t be concerned with how they look while baring their soul to tell a story. Whatever it is, a quick glance at what they’ve been doing lately should convince any doubters that this band is the real thing.

Airborne 2.0

There’s been some remarkable growth for these guys. Everyone’s musical proficiency and performance skill has improved 1,000 times over, not just how well they play together, but individually. Mikel has become a better songwriter – lyrically, and with melody and construction. Musical arrangements are far more complex and intricate. This is a band that obviously spends a lot of time crafting a song, and it shows. All I can hope for as a fan is that they stay true to their core principles throughout this mad journey, and that they can maintain their identity in the raging sea of mediocrity that surrounds them.

Inside All At Once

This is one serious second album. The band spent a year writing, arranging and recording; learning about songwriting techniques and big studio production from Dave Sardi, and whittling down 50 songs to eleven. Heady times, with heady themes to match. The sound is huge and dense as a thicket, and while their first album had playful and jovial moments, this one rarely does. The quieter ballads have a sad, wistful quality; the upbeat pop tunes, a distinct edginess. It’s not easy listening, but it’s deeply rewarding if you spend some time with it. One thing which first struck me was how well music and melody fits the lyrics, each giving something back to the other. Airborne also reinforces their standing as a “genre-free” band, with different moods and treatments for each song’s personality.

The first album had themes of alienation, though it mostly dealt with the aftermath of a bad break-up. On this one, it’s still very much a personal story, yet it reaches beyond the emotions of the storyteller, touching upon such topics as life and death, love and war, and how sudden change alters our lives and affects our world view. For Mikel, it came through the loss of four family members in a few years’ time, and grappling with the joys and horrors of a new life on the road. Interspersed are thoughts about soldiers and the hypocrisies and travesties of war (“The Kids Are Ready To Die,” “Welcome To Your Wedding Day”), youthful innocence and a questioning of faith (“It Doesn’t Mean A Thing”), and a sentimental love song (“The Graveyard Near The House”). There are thoughts of that lost relationship, yet this time it’s viewed from an insightful distance (“All For A Woman”). Bringing to life this dizzying array of stories and emotions is an arsenal of melodic hooks and furiously driving rhythm, classical string arrangements and synth lines, and ethereal viola and vocal accompaniment from Anna Bulbrook. A hell of a lot for one album.

They stretch the boundaries of dynamic range, both in sound and message. There are huge, epic productions for “All At Once” and “Welcome To Your Wedding Day,” but also quieter, more intimate moments for “All For A Woman,” “Strange Girl,” and “The Graveyard Near The House.”

From the beginning, you know that All At Once is going to be a major departure from what you thought you knew about this band. The title track is an epic masterpiece about the stages of life, from birth to death, and sudden, perception-altering change. The song is enormous in scope, in its message and execution, and features the Calder Quartet, who are also on “All For A Woman” and “All I Ever Wanted” (“Then we long to be loved, in the rush we become some things we thought we’d never be. / We were surprised by our heart, left wary and scarred, from the nights spent feeling incomplete. / And all those evenings swearing at the sky, wishing for more time.”).

“All For A Woman” is an unabashedly romantic ballad which slowly builds into a heart-swelling, soaring eagle of a song as Mikel contemplates “the muse that inspired the art” (“It was all, it was all, for the look in her eyes / for the promise, and the lie, of a woman.”).

“It Doesn’t Mean a Thing” is a sweet, heartfelt rockabilly-folk tune for Mikel’s hippie parents, in their youthful innocence, trying to understand life’s mysteries and injustices. – “it was a loneliness they would confess, like the world had gone bad I guess, so they’d hold hands, look into the eyes of God / they’d say, ‘tell me why’d you hide from us, why’d you fill this world with wickedness, why’d you spare us from your grace but not the rod?’”

In “The Kids Are Ready To Die,” Mikel examines the making of a soldier, how society exploits a young person’s pent-up anger and restlessness for the purpose of warfare, turning inner rage outward, and addresses the repercussions – “But the day will come when it falls like a cheap house of plastic / and the cards that were dealt will be tossed like a storm in the sky / ‘cause you can only lie for so long before you get something drastic / and the kids are lined up on the wall, and they’re ready to die.” This song, slowed down from its original fast-paced punk tempo to a somber funeral dirge, carries enormous gravitas.

Confrontational and explosive, “Welcome To Your Wedding Day” has an exotic feel with a punk rock aesthetic strongly reminiscent of The Clash. It recalls the news story of a predator drone accidentally hitting an Afghan wedding, and points out the hypocrisy of U.S. words and actions, combining a Middle Eastern melody with a war march of American aggression and bravado – “It’s another fine day of nation building / Let’s have a parade / You can dance on the graves and the bones of the children / If you know what to say.”

“All I Ever Wanted” (with the Calder Quartet) reprises their beautiful arrangement of this lovely song, first heard at their 2009 Disney Hall performance, in all its orchestral, sweeping grandeur.

For all the chaotic fury that begins All At Once, the album closes with the quiet fragility of “The Graveyard Near the House,” about sharing one’s life and growing old with someone, fears of loss, commitment, and disconnection (“And it left me to wonder if people ever know each other, or just stumble around like strangers in the dark. ‘Cause sometimes you seem so strange to me, I must seem strange to you. We’re like two actors playing our parts.”). A perfect marriage of music and lyrics, it features Mikel on acoustic guitar and soft vocals, with Anna’s beautiful harmony, a simple piano melody and viola adding an emotional layer at the end. It’s a beautiful close to an amazing achievement.

Daren, Mikel & Noah at the House of Blues, Boston, October 13, 2009

Daren, Mikel & Noah at the House of Blues, Boston, October 13, 2009

My key criticism of this album is with the production. The trick, now that they have access to a professional studio and a full array of technology, is to know when not to use it. That cavernous big studio sound and liberal use of reverb gives the music an austere feel, and makes the band sound like they’re a great distance away. Sonically, it’s like being at the back of a giant hall, and perhaps it’s to prepare us purists for that very experience, though it’s not one I look forward to. Their performance is passionate; the music is 1,000 times more powerful. But as a fan, I no longer feel like they’re playing in my living room, and that saddens me. The addition of synthesizers gives the album a distinctly ‘80s feel, and while I’m a fan of those days, it contributes to the austerity. Everything seems a little too perfect, too polished. Playing so much in the past three years, I expect them to sound tight and accomplished, but this is different. For stark contrast, check out their “Bombastic Series” – acoustic, one-shot, one take video clips for each song.

Marketing the Music

For better or for worse, the band is being marketed to a more mainstream audience now. “Changing” and “Numb,” U.S. and UK singles respectively, are very radio-friendly and far more commercial-sounding than anything else on the album. Even the production on the new album is designed to give them a bigger sound, which seems to further ambitions toward stadium-sized success. It’s ironic, then, that the two major rock publications, Rolling Stone and NME, both quickly dismissed the new album, and that the most thoughtful review so far is from fellow blogger Drowned in Sound. Sophisticated songwriting, complex arrangements and weighty subject matter does not make for an easy ride. It’s the sort of music that requires something of the listener beyond passive reception, and not everyone cares to make that commitment. It remains to be seen if mainstream music fans are up to the challenge (I hope they are).

About that album cover…

However delighted I am with the music, I am definitely not a fan of the album’s artwork. When it was used as the backdrop for their second headlining tour in 2009, I found the image crass and disturbing – and even more so now. That may well be the intention. Is it merely an acknowledgment of the band’s increasing popularity, or an editorial comment that fame comes at a price? The audience members are nameless and faceless in their large number, blocked out eyes concealing individual identities. But I also see those blocked eyes as blindfolds, and indeed many of those turning up at the shows, even back in 2009, were doing so on the strength of that one radio hit, unfamiliar with the band’s deeper material (that is to say, everything else on the album), and even less interested in newer songs that were finding their way onto set lists. They showed that disinterest in the form of mindless chatter during quieter, lesser-known songs and general inattentiveness. It’s great to be selling out 2,000 capacity venues, but maybe even nicer to have a few hundred people in a small room with undivided attention, singing along to every song as if they themselves wrote it.

The Future

So here I am now, faced with the prospect that my beloved little indie band who could do no wrong is now involved in an increasing number of mainstream trappings, and I must look past all that to focus on the music, and only the music. Never mind slickly-produced videos (“Changing”), appearances on godawful tv shows (“The Daily Habit”), mainstream music fans and “alternative radio” naming them alongside bland manufactured bands, and ill-advised marketing decisions that currently have hardcore fans grumbling about having to buy multiple copies of the new album for various bonus tracks poked individually into each configuration like Easter eggs. I’m preparing myself for their foray into ‘herd-em-in-like-sheep’ stadium shows, and anything else that puts distance between me and my favorite band.

If this were anyone other than Airborne, I might have already bolted. But there’s the music, you see. Those painstakingly crafted little gems that take my breath away with artistically woven melody and poetry. Individually and together, this band has developed over the past few years in a beautiful way. From Daren Taylor’s heart-pounding percussion that drives the music and perfectly punctuates every phrase and nuance, to Noah Harmon’s jazz bass groove, picking up a bow to become half of the band’s makeshift string section. There’s Steven Chen’s minimalist lead guitar heroics, with each melodic line and flourish lingering in the air, and the stunning fragile beauty of Anna Bulbrook’s viola, equally comfortable romping through a Johnny Cash cover. Anna’s ethereal backing vocals as the perfect counterpoint to Mikel Jollett’s moody baritone, and Mikel’s poetic storytelling, touchingly romantic and sentimental or angst-ridden and acerbic, with raw honesty that is unapologetic. This ragtag gathering of sensibilities and styles combine in a symbiotic way to create sonic magic and cathartic release, elevating their live performances into special events. For all that, I’ll gladly drink the kool-aid.

The Details

All At Once (Island) – release date: Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Deluxe version, with official videos for “Numb” and “Changing” and Bombastic Series (11 acoustic videos of each song) – Amazon

The Vinyl Collection Box Set (Debut album (1 disc), All I Ever Wanted: Live From Walt Disney Concert Hall (2 discs), All At Once (1 disc)) – Remastered on 180 Gram Audiophile Vinyl; limited edition, numbered & signed by the band – available from their online store

Video commentary about the album (on Amazon)

The Tour

4/29 Los Angeles, CA – John Anson Ford Amphitheatre
   (4/25-28 Los Angeles shows sold out)
4/30 EdgeFest, Frisco, Texas
5/1 BuzzFest, Houston, Texas
5/6 New York City, NY – Town Hall
   (5/2-5/5 NYC shows sold out)
5/8 Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
5/9 Philadelphia, PA – The Trocadero (5/7 show sold out)
5/11 Boston, MA – House of Blues
5/12 Montreal, Quebec – La Tulipe
5/13 Toronto, Ontario (sold out)
5/14 Cleveland, OH – House of Blues
5/15 Columbus, OH – Newport Music Hall
5/17 Minneapolis, MN – The Varsity Theater
5/19 Chicago, IL – Metro (5/18 show sold out)
5/20 Kansas City, MO – The Beaumont Club
5/22 Austin, TX – La Zona Rosa
5/24 Atlanta, GA – Variety Playhouse
5/26 Fort Lauderdale, FL – Culture Room
5/27 Orlando, FL – The Social
6/1 Salt Lake City, UT – Club Sound
6/2 Denver, CO – Ogden Theatre
6/5 Mountain View, CA – Shoreline Amphitheatre
6/7 Vancouver, BC – Commodore Ballroom
6/8 Seattle, WA – Showbox SODO
6/9 Portland, OR – Crystal Ballroom
6/11 San Diego, CA – House of Blues (sold out)
6/12 Las Vegas, NV – House of Blues
6/13 Chandler, AZ – Ovations Theatre @ Wild Horse
6/15 Reno, NV – Knitting Factory
6/16 Sacramento, CA – Ace of Spades

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2 Comments

  1. Ravenlilith

    I’ve been searching for days for someone who had something to say about this album that was neither spiteful nor trapped in idolatry and at last I’ve found it. I too love this band for their graceful fusion of poetry and music and have been riding the progression of their career with bated breath- both wanting their success and selfishly hoping to keep them the indie accessible band that I can chat with post show. Though “All At Once” is growing on me, I truly prefer the bare emotionalism, the purer sound of the Bombastic series of these tracks.
    Should we be thankful that this is NOT the recording that will rocket them to the coveted stadium level? Hard to say, but I would like to thank you for an honest review of the album!

  2. Tammy

    Once again you have so eloquently put into words the thoughts and emotions that I am feeling about this band. As you know I have been a loyal follower for these past few crazy years and it has been a fun time. It’s hard to know what the future will bring though. I do know that I love this new album. I think the songwriting is absolutely brilliant. I don’t think anything out there right now can compare.

    The shows this week were amazing. Spaceland was, well… perfect. And the El Rey had a lot of special moments. At the El Rey there were, however, the SAM only fans chatting until their song was played haha.

    Keep up the good work, Julie. I toast to you with a big ol’ glass of the kool-aid. 🙂

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