The Airborne Toxic Event
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Reviewed by David Medsker
Lately, however, it’s become increasingly difficult to determine the book by its cover. Sunny Day Sets Fire are a fabulous little pop band, but were they really dumb enough to use an internet band name generator to determine what they’d be called? Is the well so dry that even a smart band would do something so desperate? It appears so, and when it comes on the heels of releases by bands named Cute Is What We Aim For, Does It Offend You, Yeah (yes, it does, thanks for asking), What Laura Says and Hercules and Love Affair, it’s harder than ever to separate wheat from chaff at first sight.
No album released this year exemplifies that quandary better than the Los Angeles quintet Airborne Toxic Event. There is just no getting around it: that name is not just awful, but wildly misleading. It’s the word ‘toxic’ that does them such disservice; nuclear waste is toxic – indeed, the name comes from the book “White Noise,” in reference to a chemical spill – but while ATE singer and songwriter Mikel Jollett uses a poison pen, the music on the band’s eponymous debut soars with a grace that belies their name. Lead single “Sometime after Midnight” is a front-runner for Single of the Year, slowly building to a thunderous roar like U2 covering David Bowie’s “Heroes.” “Happiness Is Overrated” is filled with Clash-style guitar punches followed by a beautiful high-end melody that will make Big Country fans jump for joy. The band is not all epic seriousness and bombast, though. “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” is a funny but heartbreaking rocker about a guy who can’t accept the fact that his girl has a new fella, while “Gasoline” tells the tale of a flame that will not die, in double-time.
Jollett is a truly gifted lyricist. He doesn’t use fancy words; he just uses the right ones, and his observations cut straight to the chase, not to mention the bone. As Jollett tells the story in “Sometime after Midnight,” where a guy runs into his ex while drinking at a club, he goes from romantic to possessive lover in a heartbeat, just like any wounded ex would. (“She walks up and asks how you are / You can smell her perfume, you can see her lying naked in your arms.”) “Missy” tells the tale of a guy who meets a nice (read: religious) girl and hopes she can “fix” him. “I should have become a better man / I should be more deserving than / The beggar, thief and courtesan / I’ve been.” Clever and catchy, which is good because Jollett is somewhat lacking in the vocals department. Randy Jackson would not be out of line to call him pitchy.
As tempting as it is to dismiss the latest blogosphere sensation with a silly name (ahem, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah) before pressing play, resist the urge to do so with the Airborne Toxic Event. Jollett may spin some grim tales of love, loss and redemption – he endured a breakup, his mother’s cancer diagnosis, and his own autoimmune diagnosis within a week, so that has a tendency to warp a guy – but the songs he builds to house those words have a restless energy and optimism that suggest sunnier days lie ahead. We can hardly wait.