The Airborne Toxic Event
5 August 2008
Picture yourself spending your Thursday evening with your friends in a damp, dark New York underground club, where an open poetry exhibition has seized a controlling grip on the night. One nervous, bumbling mess after another stumbles onto the stage and pours their heart out into the microphone. As expected, the improvisational lineup reeks of amateurish performances, and the slim audience settles into a vague disinterest, only watching in order to keep tabs on the possibility of a total onstage meltdown. Suddenly, with the night winding down, a troupe of five eccentric-but-elegantly dressed 20somethings step to the mic, set up an army of sonic manipulators, and begin to seamlessly move the audience from their coffee-laden round tables to the front of the stage, and then to near tears.
The poor poets are today's beloved indie scene, the audience is ourselves as the listening community, and the troupe of five make up The Airborne Toxic Event.
In one of my favorite review quotes I've seen in a while, the LA Times calls The Airborne Toxic Event "poetry you can dance to." Well...review finished. That's really all you need to know about ATE. But then, in futile hopes of making my introduction paragraph worthwhile, I shall continue to tell more about this danceable, poetic symbiosis. Lead man Mikel Jollett is an artist at the pen, but a master at delivery. I mean, have you ever wondered what would happen if Conor Oberst could sing? Have you ever pondered the effects of Bruce Springsteen upping his performance to the point where you’re as sucked in and consumed as dust to a vacuum? What if Vampire Weekend collaborated with Joy Division? If your interest was piqued by any of these questions, I’d like to recommend an album to you.
The eponym begins with “Wishing Well”, a pulsating thought bubble that compares more to a usually-indescribable feeling than to an emotion or experience. It’s the descriptionless anxious boredom that drives us to the brink of insanity as we’re trapped within our minds with nothing else to do. Of course, I can’t do it justice here, nor could I in any other non-prose format. When a song does more than poetry can, that is to say knowing and remembering that you’re at the exact spot in time that Jollett refers to, you come to realize that the rest of the album will likely be a downhill slope.
And so it is, but in brilliantly marginal fashion. Songs like “Papillion” and “Gasoline” make you quite literally want to cry and dance at the same time. Really, they sort of make me want to hear The Bravery cover some Brand New material. Nothing like mixed emotions tearing you in opposite ways like a storm front collision. The best example of this is the oddball track “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?”, which comes off as almost too jangly to take itself seriously. By the second verse, you’re already too enveloped in self-appreciating enjoyment to notice the lyrics, “I come to your door and I hear a moan / Then another voice, Oh Christ she’s not alone, alone, alone / And my heart sinks like a stone, a stone, a stone.”
Buried halfway into the second half of the album comes the clear album highlight, “Sometime Around Midnight”. Kicking off with a violin overture reminiscent of R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming”, the song presses into a nervous sweat. Ever shown up to a party, only to see a former lover walk in and leave with another man? No? You’ll swear you have after five minutes of ATE. None of the lost, dizzying sickness fails to come through on this track. After the Americana-based “Missy” begs the listener to accept the character’s love, The Airborne Toxic Event end their debut in a most curious manner. “Innocence” begins with sweeping violins and distant guitars. Eventually it picks up, digressing into a structureless, desperate cry for easier times.
All in all, this little, unknown band from Los Feliz, California has done more than enough to impress me beyond what I could’ve ever imagined when I took their CD from the shelves. Their unique brand of soothing-but-emotive, post-punk poetry has taken my iTunes play counts by storm and left all else in disarray. The Airborne Toxic Event will never hit the mainstream and may never be prodigious in the Absolutepunk scene, but they certainly have and will continue to leave their mark on the high quality indie business.