I’m not going to lie, I did not have high hopes for the new album from The Airborne Toxic Event. I’m not sure I’m even supposed to like them (or at least not to admit to it publicly) since they’re not quite mainstream enough to be truly popular, but definitely not weird or indie or hipster enough to be cool. But lead singer Mikel Jollett is a (former?) writer and essayist who named his band after a section of a novel (White Noise) and based a song and video on the short story The Hitchhiking Game (by Milan Kundera). I was intrigued enough to read the story (spoiler alert: it’s a bit depressing, but does help to bring some nice context to the song and video). And the excellent Such Hot Blood, which stood out even in the rest of 2013’s array of amazing music, was enough to get me to buy tickets to their show at the Vic (and I can generally count the number of concerts I go to in a year on one hand with fingers to spare).
At that show, though, the band debuted a couple of new songs… I could tell they were new not just because I’d listened to most of their popular songs enough to recognize them, but because they heavily featured synthesizers and drum machines. My first thought was: “Ah, they’re entering their synth and drum machine phase.” I’m generally in the camp of “That Doesn’t Work Out So Well” when it comes to that stage of a bands career…
Then they released “Hell and Back” on the Dallas Buyers Club soundtrack and while it was still heavy on the synths and computer generated drums, it was as upbeat and rocking as any song on any of their previous albums. While I consider myself more patient, and less “What have you done for me lately?” 24-hour-news-cycle ADHD than most of America, I’ll admit that after more than a year from the release of that song, my interest waned. I am on the band’s email list, though, so I did get a notification of the upcoming release of Dope Machines when they announced it. My thought at the time was something along the lines of “Yeah, I’m sure I’ll remember to listen to that at some point.”
Luckily, I also follow them on Spotify, so I got another alert when the new album was available there and figured I’d take a listen. (Even though as a Tech Lead/Engineering Manager, I get a lot less “headphone time” than I used to a straight up coder)
(Perhaps) Needless to say, I was suitably impressed. At least enough to write this blog post about it. 🙂 While the album is not a solid burner like Such Hot Blood, it only has 2 real dud songs among the 10 tracks. Much better than I’d expected. And while I’m not usually one to do a track-by-track breakdown, I’m procrastinating a bit from doing other writing, so here goes…
1. Wrong – (Doge Nels says:) Such synth; such Casio keyboard drum line. And yet… And yet… I kind of love it. Mikel’s voice and lyrics are the same, and they ease the transition. The general mood and feel of the song is the same as most ATE… so it works. The first sign that not all hope was lost.
2. One Time Thing – Less Casio… Storytelling… Metaphors… Sort of fuzzy and gritty with a good build up to take us into the title track….
3. Dope Machines – A little Jack and Diane hand clapping with the first real guitar riffs on the album. Continues to build from One Time Thing – another good thing that ATE does well: blending songs into each other (sequencing, I believe?).
4. California – Moving back to more traditional ATE but with fake drums. Talk about her dress, Mikel. Do it. Update it by mentioning Tumblr. What? Yeah. Part Some Time Around Midnight, part Elizabeth, I was kind of surprised how much I liked this one… It seems a bit cheesy and abstract, like a hint of something that’s not really there. But a couple sharp points dig in and stick with you…
5. Time to be a Man – Now I really want to hate myself for liking this one. Especially since I should be too old for it… but yeah, it still strikes a chord in my heartmind that say “Nels: it’s time to be a man.” More of those sharp, pointy details than the previous song, you can tell this is really something he felt; to the point where I can see him sitting down to write this song with a specific event in mind.
6. Hell and Back – I really like this one, but it almost seems out of place on this album. It’s kind of too much upbeat, pounding (I want to say thrashing, but that’s clearly not the right word – might be time for the Great Courses Vocabulary Builder…) Even my wife knows this… I put it on a mix CD for her (we have a CD player in our car, so I make Driving Mixes) and she didn’t like it, but I put Wrong, Time to be a Man, and Chains on the latest CD and we both like those in the car.
7. My Childish Bride – I’m kind of ‘meh’ about this… It is clearly the descent into the slow part of the album… Like it’s hanging off the cliff between acceptable ATE and the ATE that I don’t listen to. Also, “my childish bride”? Super pervy. Even if it was just the same music with different lyrics it would be better… but it makes me feel a bit pedo every time I listen. “We stare at each other like a sister to a brother” – come on dude… If we’re not supposed to imply incest from that, then maybe my mind is like my bowling balls (always in the gutter). If this came between two other good songs, then fine, I’d probably be cool with it. But since it leads into the next two, all I can think about it what comes next…
8. The Thing About Dreams – Yawn. At least give me a power ballad or something if you’re going to go slow like this… I’ve been listening to each of the songs as I write these reviews, and this is the first one I’ve had to skip through. Awful. I literally can’t even.
9. Something You Lost – Didn’t I just listen to this song and hate it? Pretty sure I did. At least take the fairly decent lyrics and put them with some music that doesn’t make me want to click the -> button as fast as possible.
10. Chains – Holy Hell. If ATE had left off the previous two songs, this album would only have 8 songs on it. (Fact!) But the entire album would be so much more awesome for it. This song gives me chills at the beginning. You can just tell that something awesome is coming. Build it up, guys. Build it. Call it The Storm Redux for the Dope Machines era.
One final chapter to the story… I got an email from the band saying that they were releasing an acoustic album along with the electro one on the same day. Nice! I thought: Maybe that will make up for the two disappointments that I got when I bought the very reasonably priced Dope Machines off Amazon… except, oops: The acoustic album is apparently only available if you buy Dope Machines from their web site. Buzzkill! I feel like I should get the album for free just to make up for The Things About Dreams and Something You List (yes, those songs are really that bad). Instead, my plan is to write the band and see if I can send my Amazon receipt showing my purchase of Dope Machines in exchange for a download of Songs of God and Whiskey (which it seems you can’t even stream anywhere just to listen to it without buying it…).
To be continued (maybe sort of) …
After emailing my Amazon receipt to the Gmail account associated with the merch site for TATE, I got a link back to download the Songs of God and Whiskey for $0. So: Awesome. Thanks guys! (No review on that one yet…)
Released first was Frightened Rabbit’s new album Pedestrian Version
More recently: The Airborne Toxic Event’s Such Hot Blood (only $5 at the time of this post!)
I’m not on top of music or anything so I just got both of these albums in July (which comes out to five months late for Frightened Rabbit and a month late for TATE).
I’m sure there are others that I’m not really thinking of that I might have actually gotten when they came out, but so far, these two really hit the “Nels” sweet spot for the kind of almost-poetry/high-school-poetry lyrics and mostly upbeat arrangements. I think I’m not supposed to like the Airborne Toxic Event because Pitchfork gave their first album a 1.6, but the same guy gave the Childish Gambino album a 1.6, so I think that’s really code for “Don’t tell anyone that I actually like this because it would ruin my street cred.”
Sure, a lot of the songs on Such Hot Blood are tailor made for performing in arenas, bombastic anthems that build and swell to something grandiose, but guess what, I like stuff like that.
So, I mean, come on.
It’s rare, very rare indeed, that I actually like all the songs on any given album and can just listen to the album straight through without making a playlist to filter out the lower quality songs. Even those songs on Such Hot Blood are not bad. I’d say ‘True Love’ is my least favorite, but the pseudo-folk-Trampled-By-Turtles thing makes up for the fairly grating chorus and the annoying number of times he says “Cause it’s true love.” ‘The Fifth Day’ gets a little self-involved and over-orchestrated in it’s 6-minute playing time, but the beginning build-up feel so raw and genuine that again, it makes up for my minor quibbles with the middle part of the song.
Now, as for Frightened Rabbit, I feel like their The Midnight Organ Fight and The Winter of Mixed Drinks while both brilliantly titled albums were not wholly consistent in their quality (don’t get me wrong, they’re still really good). (I haven’t heard Sing The Greys or the songs on the EPs, so I can’t speak to that) But Pedestrian Verse is so good that I actually looked up their tour schedule and pretty much immediately bought tickets for their Lollapalooza after show. I go to live concerts even less than I buy music (read: irrationally cheap), so I’m not sure that there’s anything that could speak more highly of an album.