Monday, February 09, 2009

The Airborne Toxic Event in Concert in Los Angeles on February 12, 2009

Update: My review of the show can be found at L.A. Calling: The Airborne Toxic Event Live in Hollywood on February 12, 2009

My brother, the Seattle (Bainbridge Island for the NW crowd) poet, Kent Chadwick recently sent a belated birthday present my way. In the Chadwick family all holiday presents are belated. So don't worry those gifts will be on their way soon. Inside the package was the amazing debut album by the Silver Lake band (Los Angeles for the NW crowd) The Airborne Toxic Event.
The Airborne Toxic Event will be playing in Hollywood on February 12. 2009 at The Henry Fonda Music Box. A few tickets may still be available at: Henry Fonda Music Box

Singer and guitarist Mikel Jollett leads the band, which takes its name from the novel White Noise by Don DeLillo. In the novel a chemical spill from a railcar releases a poisonous cloud, dubbed by the military as an “airborne toxic event.” DeLillo is the masterful novelist whose work includes Underworld, Mao II, The Body Artist and White Noise (which inspired my painting of the same title.)

White Noise
Gregg Chadwick
White Noise
60"x60" oil on linen 2002

Martin Robinson's recent article in
provides a rich introduction to the band:

The Airborne Toxic Event is centered around Mikel Jollett, "a man very much in the Springsteen mould of raw feeling, anthems and charismatic showmanship. Well, when his ex-girlfriends aren’t in the room, that is. Mikel looks panicked when we meet, and whispers, “The album was written about two girls, and they’re both here.” Yeah, as a former Philip Roth-obsessed fiction writer, he’s got a tendency to not hold back his songs, so his current girlfriend watches out for flying glasses while Mikel introduces us to The Airborne Toxic Event’s moustachioed, Naboo-ish drummer Daren and golden girl (not as in old, just, y’know, golden) violinist Anna. They’ve recently got back from a frankly mental 30 Shows in 30 Days UK tour, which proved to be a lesson in how classy Britain is. Highlights included playing on AstroTurf in a marquee in Hayle, being paid in food in Fife (Daren: “Dude, weird Scottish pies!”) and playing to one shaven-headed man with his trousers undone in Hull (Mikel: “He was staring at Anna. I was figuring out how to aim my guitar at his head if he touched her”).

"Mikel remembers how the US election changed how they were welcomed around the country. “I was walking in Camden the morning after and people were high-fiving me. Like, ‘You finally did something right!’” You could say (if you wanted) that Obama’s transforming of America’s image is being reflected in the way Mikel is trying to change the image of LA. As he introduces us to local legends The Movies, he insists, “Where we live has nothing to do with the Hollywood industry.” Certainly, in contrast to most hipster scenes, everyone is incredibly friendly."

The Airborne Toxic Event signed with a smaller record label, Majordomo Records, in April 2008,releasing their first self-titled record in August, 2008. In December iTunes named Sometime Around Midnight the best alternative song of 2008. In January 2009, the band appeared on David Letterman. (Video below)

Sometime Around Midnight with Calder Quartet on TV

Upon the release of their debut album, The Airborne Toxic Event received a hatchet job of a review by Ian Cohen on Pitchfork. In their best Bernard Black effort (see video below) the band sent an open letter to the critic.

An Open Letter to Pitchfork Media from the Airborne Toxic Event
By The Airborne Toxic Event • September 17, 2008

Dear Ian,

Thanks for your review of our record. It’s clear that you are a good writer and it’s clear that you took a lot of time giving us a thorough slagging on the site. We are fans of Pitchfork. And it’s fun to slag off bands. It’s like a sport — kind of part of the deal when you decide to be in a rock band. (That review of Jet where the monkey pees in his own mouth was about the funniest piece of band-slagging we’ve ever seen.)

Bernard Black's Rejection

We decided a long time ago not to take reviews too seriously. For one, they tend to involve a whole lot of projection, generally saying more about the writer than the band. Sort of a musical Rorschach test. And for another, reading them makes you too damned self-conscious, like the world is looking over your shoulder when the truth is you’re not a genius or a moron. You’re just a person in a band.

Plus, the variation of opinions on our record has bordered on absurd. 80 percent of what’s been said has been positive, a few reviews have remained on the fence and a few (such as yours) have been aggressively harsh. We tend not to put a lot of stock in this stuff, but the sheer disagreement of opinion makes for fascinating (if not a bit narcissistic) reading.

And anyway we have to admit that we found ourselves oddly flattered by your review. I mean, 1.6? That is not faint praise. That is not a humdrum slagging. That is serious fist-pounding, shoe-stomping anger. Many publications said this was among the best records of the year. You seem to think it’s among the worst. That is so much better than faint praise.

You compare us to a lot of really great bands (Arcade Fire, the National, Bright Eyes, Bruce Springsteen) and even if your intention was to cut us down, you end up describing us as: “lyrically moody, musically sumptuous and dramatic.” One is left only to conclude that you must think those things are bad.

We love indie rock and we know full well that Pitchfork doesn’t so much critique bands as critique a band’s ability to match a certain indie rock aesthetic. We don’t match it. It’s true that the events described in these songs really happened. It’s true we wrote about them in ways that make us look bad. (Sometimes in life you are the hero, and sometimes, you are the cuckold. Sometimes you’re screaming about your worst fears, your most vicious jealousies and failures. Such is life.) It’s also true that the record isn’t ironic or quirky or fey or disinterested or buried beneath mountains of guitar noodling.

As writers, we admire your tenacity and commitment to your tone (even though you do go too far with your assumptions about us). You’re wrong about our intentions, you’re wrong about how this band came together, you don’t seem to get the storytelling or the catharsis or the humor in the songs, and you clearly have some misconceptions about who we are as a band and who we are as people.

But it also seems to have very little to do with us. Much of your piece reads less like a record review and more like a diatribe against a set of ill-considered and borderline offensive preconceptions about Los Angeles. Los Angeles has an extremely vibrant blogging community, Silver Lake is a very close-knit rock scene. We are just one band among many. (And by the way, L.A. does have a flagship indie rock band: they’re called Silversun Pickups). We cut our teeth at Spaceland and the Echo and have nothing to do with whatever wayward ideas you have about the Sunset Strip. That’s just bad journalism.

But that is the nature of this sort of thing. It’s always based on incomplete information. Pitchfork has slagged many, many bands we admire (Dr. Dog, the Flaming Lips, Silversun Pickups, Cold War Kids, Black Kids, Bright Eyes [ironic, no?] just to name a few), so now we’re among them. Great.

This band was borne of some very very dark days and the truth is that there is something exciting about just being part of this kind of thing. There’s this long history of dialogue between bands and writers so it’s a bit of a thrill that you have such a strong opinion about us.

We hear you live in Los Angeles. We’d love for you to come to a show sometime and see what we’re doing with these lyrically moody and dramatic songs. You seem like a true believer when it comes to music and writing so we honestly think we can’t be too far apart. In any case, it would make for a good story.

all our best–

Mikel, Steven, Anna, Daren, Noah
the Airborne Toxic Event

Below is the review, from the front page of Pitchfork:

The Airborne Toxic Event: The Airborne Toxic Event
[Majordomo; 2008]
Rating: 1.6

I probably couldn’t get anyone here in Los Angeles to admit it, but the city lacks a flasgship upstart indie band and wants one in the worst way—one both a little fresher than Spin cover stars Beck and Rilo Kiley and with more mainstream potential than the bands from the Smell. The onus would likely fall on the folkier, cuddlier Silver Lake/Los Feliz scene, but over the past three years it feels as if the area’s bands have failed to rise to the occasion.

It’s no surprise that many are betting the house on the Airborne Toxic Event– their debut album is lyrically moody, musically sumptuous, and dramatic. Their name is even a transparent DeLillo reference, and every one of the 10 tracks sounds like it can be preceded with radio chatter. The Airborne Toxic Event have done their homework. But unless you’re a certain French duo, homework rarely results in good pop music, and The Airborne Toxic Event is an album that’s almost insulting in its unoriginality; while the sound most outsiders attribute to Los Angeles has been marginalized to Metal Skool and the average customer at the Sunset Boulevard Guitar Center, TATE embodies the Hollywood ideal of paying lip service to the innovations of mavericks while trying to figure out how to reduce it to formula.

Throughout, the Airborne Toxic Event show a surface-level familiarity with early 00s critics lists, but aren’t able to convey what made those much-lauded recods emotionally resonant. Can’t convert unthinkable tragedy into cathartic, absolutely alive music like Arcade Fire? Just steal the drum pattern from “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”? Can’t connect with the listener with the same fourth-wall busting intimacy as Bright Eyes? That’s when you trot out the run-on sentences and get all tremulous when you mean it, man. And that’s just the first song. Not privy to the Strokes’ accidental poetry and concise songwriting? Get a distorted microphone. Want a hit as big as “Mr. Brightside”, but take yourself too seriously to conjure a semblance of juicy melodrama? Grab a half-assed disco beat and boom, you’re now ready to write the limpdicked cuckold behind “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?”

And while it’s understandable that a debut should owe such enormous debts, what really rankles is the unrelenting entitlement that assumes cred via sonic proximity– it’s the musical equivalent of showing up to a bar with a bad fake ID and throwing a hissy-fit when you get carded. While lead singer Mikel Jollett can alternately sound like Paul Banks, Win Butler, Conor Oberst, or Matt Berninger, what ties the LP together is quite possibly the most unlikeable lyric book of the year, rife with empty dramatic signifiers, AA/BB simplicity, and casual misogyny. If Social Distortion did Bruce Springsteen instead of callow Johnny Cash fan fic, you might get the lock-limbed anti-rock of “Gasoline”, but my god– “We were only 17/ We were holding back our screams/ Like we tore it from the pages of some lipstick magazine.” Before you can comprehend just how clich├ęd and yet somehow meaningless that line is, by the next hook he’s replaced “screams” with “dreams” and “lipstick” with “girlie,” before he’s “only 21 [and] not having any fun.” Then something about “bullets from a gun.”

If only that were the low point. It pains me to pan “Sometime Around Midnight” on concept alone because, man, we’ve all been there. Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before: There’s a club if you’d like to go…except maybe when you go home and cry and want to die, and it reduces you to putting your thoughts on paper in rhyme form. The next morning, you thank god no one’s seen it but you. The Airborne Toxic Event aren’t so private, alas. As the ill-fated narrator sees his ladyfriend in a “white dress” “holding a tonic like a cross” while “a piano plays a melancholy soundtrack to her smile” (what bars do these guys go to?). He imagines holding her naked “like two perfect circles entwined.” After five minutes pass, she leaves with “some man you don’t know” and then your friends look at you “like you’ve seen a ghost.” There’s a possibility this is just a po-mo exercise, writing a song about writing a song about how some girl not wanting to fuck you is some sort of epic human calamity, but judging by the out-of-nowhere string section that opens the thing for the first minute, I doubt these guys are playing. It begins a stunning about-face that finds the band spending the rest of the record trying to be Jimmy Eat World.

In a way, The Airborne Toxic Event is something of a landmark record: This represents a tipping point where you almost wish Funeral or Turn on the Bright Lights or Is This It? never happened as long as it spared you from horrible imitations like this one, often sounding more inspired by market research than actual inspiration. Congrats, Pitchfork reader– the Airborne Toxic Event thinks you’re a demographic.

- Ian Cohen, September 17, 2008

Ian Cohen's efforts seemed to have failed as the band and their music grow in popularity and influence. I will be at their show on Thursday, More thoughts to follow ...


Phil Beard said...

I have taken the liberty of nominating your blog for a Premio Dardos Award, given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. I had to choose the five blogs that I most admire and yours was one. Please pass it on if you can. Best wishes, Phil.

gregg chadwick said...

Thanks Phil.
I am honored. Glad that my blog speaks to you.