Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Airborne Toxic Event

Imagine if, somehow, Neil Diamond, U2, Duran Duran and Bush's Gavin Rosdale came together to set aside their lesser devils and unite the better angels of their respective sounds. The end result would sound something like All At Once, the sophomore effort of The Airborne Toxic Effect – out April 26 on Island Records.

Obviously, with that kind of lead-in, there a lot going on here, and the resulting compilation of influences and directions that comprise All At Once is a more fragmented offering than the recent concept or thematic approaches presented by acts like The Decemberists and Southeast Engine, as reviewed here in the past few months. This is not to suggest that the product is unenjoyable or unfocused, but rather a marked deviation from more cohesive records. It all starts with a delay-style riff – a la The Edge – in the opening, title track. The low-octave, hesitating line from lead guitarist Steven Chen suits the boozy, rich vocals of frontman, rhythm guitarist and occasional keyboardist Mikel Jollett – at times warm and full like The National'sBeringer Matt , at others grainy and unkempt, more resembling the former Bush singer, Rosdale, and still others bearing the half sung/half spoken schmaltz of Neil Diamond. While Chen and Jollett slide into the number's first third, the introduction of the full quintet tacks most closely to the intensity of The Edge's hallmark Irish outfit, as if Bono sat nearby in a darkened corner of the studio, nodding behind his signature shades. The same urgency is reflected not only on the following "Numb," but also in a more restrained capacity later on via "Half of Something Else." This trio of cuts accounts for but one division of the Los Angeles group's arsenal.

The poppy stomp-stomp-clamp of "Changing" – which draws the third slot on the 11-track album – channels more of a Duran, Duran 80's synth pop style, filtered through the more contemporary lens of The Killers' charging veneer. While Chen's stabbing staccato cuts give the number its bite, its color is filled-in by peppy keyboard parts supplied by Jollet and multi-instrumentalist Anna Bulbrook (who also contributes viola and percussion, while bassist Noah Harmon and drummer Daren Taylor round-out a capable but hardly flashy rhythm section). The same sound reemerges later in "Strange Girl," which features less sparkle but more substance, owing to its assignment in the nine-hole.

Amongst all this, surely you're wondering, where does the Neil Diamond flavor fit in? The answer is found in another trio of distinct tracks, starting with "All for a Woman," on through "The Kids Are Ready to Die" and the closing "The Graveyard Near the House." The combination plays like some unexpected, late-career resurrection we all wish Mr. Diamond had in him. The influence here is mostly found in Jollet's phrasing when paired with acoustic guitar. Close your eyes and let a line like, "so you smile politely and you demur" in the the first of these recall "Cracklin Rosie;" rediscover "Memphis Streets" as Jollett accounts how, "...I was just 13 when I got my first taste of danger" in "The Kids Are Ready to Die;" and allow the evocative imagery spun out in the latter ("we looked so silly there; all decomposed, half turned to dust, in tattered clothes") to direct you back to "Morningside." And although the last of these is just millimeters away from lifting the melody of "Hey There, Delilah," its unlikely the Plain White T's could have crafted lyrics that tiptoe between haunting and conviction so effectively.

Still another sort of sonic direction resides here, in the form of the strange Gordon Lightfoot-meets-Rockabilly of "It Doesn't Mean a Thing" and the punkish "Welcome to Your Wedding Day." The former describes a shotgun wedding – much in the same manner as Great Big Sea's "Hit the Ground and Run" – with Jollet delivering the collection's most well-crafted line:
"It was shot gun forest wedding, but they forgot to bring the gun. As they were busy counting promises to the children not yet born"

The whole time, you get the feeling the band feels like they're getting away with one here, which only adds to the track's tongue-in-cheek groove. It's expertly delivered. Meanwhile, the latter is topical considering this week's events, and is something you'd expect that the increasingly adventurous Green Day would have attempted on 21st Century Breakdown – something like "Peacemaker," albeit with significantly less synth. The building refrain at the number's climax – "we don't negotiate with terror" – is eerily reminiscent of Rosdale's "there's no sex in your violence" in Bush's breakout hit, "Everything Zen." While the pair of cuts standout from the others in tone and attitude, they're also the record's most enjoyable moments.

Come for: "Changing"
Stay for: "It Doesn't Mean a Thing"
You'll be surprised by: "Welcome to Your Wedding Day"

1 comment:

  1. I'm a sucker for lyrics. I like these guys already. ("We get old all at once...." Plus, that one sounds like DeVotchKa)