Airborne Toxic Event: Timeless

Timeless, Airborne Toxic Event EP 2013

Timeless, Airborne Toxic Event EP 2013

By Ryan Hilligoss, March 13, 2013

The Airborne Toxic Event, Timeless EP, Island Records

Rating: 4 1/2 gold records on the wall

“Elvis fell apart with grief when Gladys died. He fondled and petted her in the casket. He talked baby talk to her until she was in the ground. It seems fairly certain that Glady’s death caused a fundamental shift at the center of the King’s world view. She’d been his anchor, his sense of security. He began to withdraw from the real world, to enter the stage of his own dying.” White Noise, Don DeLillio

In 2011, The Airborne Toxic Event released their second album, All At Once, and the title track serves as a microcosm of the band’s sound, fervor, lyrical content and musical purpose. Standing as a musical metaphor for life, the song begins quietly with an uptempo guitar click clacking away like a clock passing time with keyboards lightly undercutting lead vocalist Mikel Jollett singing:

We were born without time/Nameless in the arms
Of a mother, a father, and God
When the world would wait for us/A thousand years in the crush
Of our eyes, fearless, in awe/So quietly we’d fade into sleep
With nothing on our mind

And then, just as in the struggle of life he describes, the song takes off with a galloping, pounding drum beat and bass line, the music moving along rapidly propelling us along just as in life, ‘wishing for more time’ but just wasting our opportunities. In the third verse as the waters rise around us the rhythm builds and builds as the drummer smashes the cymbals over and over, Jollett sings:

We get old all at once/And it comes like a punch
In the gut, in the back, in the face/When it seems someone cried
And our parents have died
Then we hold onto each other in their place
Yeah, I feel the world changin’ all at once/ I guess it’ll be OK

With the final verse, the tempo and levels slow and grow smaller as ‘we all hope that someone was looking down as we return our bodies to the ground.’ It started soft and quiet just as in childhood before we understand the concepts of time and mortality, goes crashing through the bulk of the song in a mad dash to the quiet end. Jollett as lyricist and the band seem to have a deft, great feel for the fears that we all have but most people and musicians refuse to address or even acknowledge.

The band has released a four song EP, Timeless, as a precursor to the April 16 release of their third album, Such Hot Blood. The four tracks released will be included in the full album and include The Secret, Timeless, The Storm and Safe and play as an epic take on the same themes that have run through all of their work; topics of life,the passing of time, love lost and found, and the pain, wonder and puzzlement that is human existence. The band consists of Jollett on guitar and vocals, Steven Chen on lead guitar, Noah Harmon on bass, Darren Taylor on drums and Anna Bulbrook on viola and vocals. They often also use orchestration of some level to add strings and backing heft. The overall sound is that of a 21st century Phil Spectoresque ‘wall of sound’ with Jollett’s vocals reminding me somewhat of a plaintive Adam Duritz of Counting Crows but with more soul and muscle ala Bruce Springsteen.

The Airborne Toxic Event

The Airborne Toxic Event

Springsteen’s influence can be heard in the big, full sound that fills in the spaces when needed but often packs a rock hard punch, and that is no coincidence. In a recent Rolling Stone interview by Steve Baltin, Jollett says he watched recent documentaries on the making of Springsteen’s classic and learned some necessary lessons on artistry. Born To Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town albums. (The movies Wings For Wheels and The Promise, respectively, are both fine films made by Thom Zimny and well worth the investment in time and attention for those interested in the process of artistic production, whether you are a fan of Springsteen or not). Jollett says,  “I asked myself, ‘What would Bruce Springsteen do?’ If you want to do something that’s important, you can’t fake it. I remember thinking, ‘You can do a lot more: you can learn to play piano for real, you can learn to sing for real, you can take what you know about songwriting and forget it and then remember it. You can learn other forms, you can rewrite your lyrics 20 times so they’re exactly right. So yeah, it was a choice to try and grow and to push to grow.”

The band takes their name from the above quoted novel, White Noise, which focuses on college professor Jack Gladney, teacher of Hitler studies at a small liberal arts school, and his family. Jack and wife Babette live their lives with a soul crushing fear of death with such force that Babette prostitutes herself with a drug manufacturer rep to obtain a test drug called Dylar in the hopes to treat her fear. The book is split into three acts, the second of which is The Airborne Toxic Event in which an industrial accident unleashes a black chemical cloud that floats over their city and forces Jack and Babette to confront their fears. Jack describes the cloud as ‘ a towering black mass like a shapeless growing thing, a dark breathing thing of smoke.’

That black mass forms again with the EP’s four songs and may possibly form the “four corners” of the full album once it’s released. The four corners represent the sequence of songs used with vinyl LPs  and would have been the first and last songs of each album side. In many cases, the four corners of the album formed the foundation of the artist’s and the album’s musical, lyrical and meaning in content. This EP starts with The Secret, with siren-like keyboard sending out a warning or distress signal with Bulbrook’s viola adding a counter measure with a driving bass line underneath as Jollett sings:

The sound of the engine/The feel of the tires

Your hands on the rail/The smell from the tires

Streetlights and headlights on a road that goes nowhere

She left you she left you/But you know she’s still out there

And somehow it always seems/Like you were waiting for something

But the secret’s out now

The secret may be out now in the song, but I am still trying to decipher what that secret is: who was driving that car that left the narrator behind, where are the fires and what is burning, where did she go, what is the something he’s been waiting for and what is the secret?

In Timeless, the narrative continues as the same “she” disappears into the darkness and the spurned lover can still feel her spirit in the room. The narrator wonders ‘what is this whole in my heart that I cannot abide.’ Jollett sings:

I wish that our lives are just endless/’Cause it’s all too short and I’m leaving soon

I want to hold onto all the people I lost/I want to keep them with me/ We would never part

We are timeless/We are, we are timeless, timeless/Everything we have, oh my god

I feel like I could live forever with you, my love

It’s  like their lives were over/Before they had even begun

Like many of their songs, the tempos, levels and sound arrangements perfectly match the lyrics and vocals and build the narrative and meaning of the songs. On this one, it starts with a mellow sound but builds throughout the song and goes into a funky bridge with heavy guitar chords backed by matching orchestration that works well as the drums crash and fade out.

In The Storm, the missing lover comes back in the door after 25 days, or 25 weeks, or 25 months and announces they are here to stay and the worst of the storm is over. The actual amount of time is unclear because the road opens before the narrator and goes on forever so the concept of time doesn’t really exist and speaks to the heart of many of their songs. The final track of the EP, Safe, is replete with Springsteenesque influences, and I was left with the feeling that this is an updated, 21st century version of Thunder Road as it opens with a Roy Bittan like piano line, tinkling away as Bulbrook’ viola sways lightly in the background. I imagine Springsteen’s Mary on the front porch as the screen door slams and the driver asks her to get into the car but advises that the ride, it ain’t free.

It was early for summer/All the people and the music from the bar

You in your grey dress/Your arm on the window/You said what’s the difference

Just say it to me, just say it to me

Let’s not make it a thing, it’ll be ok babe

The tempo speeds up quickly with the viola rapidly calling out as a siren, the drums ticking away the time just like Al Jackson’s drums on Otis Redding’s Try A Little Tenderness, and the guitar and bass clashing together as the drama builds and the two lovers decide if they will take that ride together. Then Bulbrook begins singing in a haunting, ghostly fashion, “Do you really want to hear it, did you really think this was real?” Jollett sings back that they can’t slow down now since it’s not safe for travel. Finally, they get to an unknown location and arise from the car and “she” leaves her bag in the backseat and he sees that as a sign of love and confirmation of his hopes. Act four of the drama has come to an end, but questions abound for characters and listeners alike.

In The Promised Land, one of Springsteen’s penultimate songs that encapsulates much of his career’s intent, his character faces down the storm of life as he watches ‘a black cloud rising from the desert floor and packs his bag and heads straight into the storm.’ Airborne Toxic Event faces that storm of life and death with each album and each song with pride, strength and determination, and I highly anticipate the release of the completed album so I can hear them do it again with ‘Such Hot Blood.’

Selected videography and notes

More than coincidence: Airborne Toxic Event’s debut album, self titled and released in 2009, contains a bonus track entitled The Girls In Their Summer Dresses which is very close in title to Springsteen’s Girls In Their Summer Clothes released on Magic in 2007.

Airborne Toxic Event bio page

The Mavericks: In Time and En Fuego

Mavericks In Time cover

By Ryan Hilligoss, February 28, 2013

The Mavericks, In Time, Valory Music Co.

Rating: 4 out of 5 gold records on the wall

Like a lot of other music and bands that have become my favorites over time, I stumbled upon The Mavericks by happy accident. While driving around in 1999, I happened upon a review on NPR of a new tribute album coming out of country-alt-rock legend Gram Parsons entitled Return of the Grievous Angel which included covers from The Pretenders with Emmy Lou Harris, Gillian Welch, Wilco, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and The Mavericks, among others. I was stunned to hear The Mavericks bring The Flying Burrito Brothers song, Hot Burrito #1 to full, alt-country life with a blend of a steady rock drum beat, steel pedal guitar and the soaring vocals of lead singer Raul Malo. For my money there are a few singers in modern American music that have been pure, smooth and powerful such as Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jackie Wilson, Trisha Yearwood, and you can add Raul Malo’s name to that impressive list. If you have any doubt, just listen to the below clips of him singing a fine cover version of Etta James’ At Last, Johnny Cash’s I Still Miss Someone, or one of my favorite Springsteen covers, All That Heaven Will Allow. (Malo can also be seen singing I Told You So with Scotty Moore on guitar and DJ Fontana on drums by clicking this link.)

The Mavericks released their first album in 1991 during the height of the ‘Garth Brooks’ country sound and blazed their way through six albums with a fine amalgamation of sounds ranging from country, old school rock and roll, mariachi horns and accordion, up tempo rock, Latin based rhythms  and everything in between. The band broke up in 2003 but is back in style with their new release In Time. If you have ever wondered what Buck Owens and The Buckaroos would sound like backed by the surf rock group The Ventures playing guitar behind a ska beat, here it is in all it’s glory.

The lineup includes Malo, Paul Deakin on drums, Robert Reynolds on bass, Eddie Perez on guitar and Jerry Dale McFadden on accordion, organ, piano and arrangements, with various others helping out on strings, horns and additional percussion. All thirteen songs are original works written by Malo with some help from writing partners. The thirteen songs are drenched in Latin beats, showing their Miami roots as always, like samba and bossa nova, and include two versions of Come Unto Me, in Beatlesesque fashion, one sung in English and one in Spanish over the same backing tracks. The band rips through the entire album like they hadn’t been apart all these years, and they don’t miss a beat or leave a stone unturned.

Appropriately, the album begins with the ska beat opener of Back In Your Arms Again with the lyrics: Once I said I’d never want your love again/You showed up tonight and proved me wrong/ Things I said I’d never do since you and I were through/But here I am back in your arms again. It’s true they have been gone for a while, but now they’re back in their listeners and fans wide open armsNext up is Lies with a powerful ,rolling, tempo and full on Duane Eddy guitar sound supplied by Perez, and at the end, Malo asking the band to keep rolling as he repeats the last line ‘I believe in all your lies’ three times like he is just happy to be back in the studio with the band and doesn’t want the good times to end.

Come Unto Me is a funky mashup of styles of Ventures guitar sounds, calypso beat, and fluttering accordion threading through the love struck lyrics. Throughout the album, this listener hears influences abound that have fueled their bands highly distinct style throughout their career. Orbison’s Blue Bayou beat can be heard behind In Another’s Arms, a quick tempo runs through Fall Apart with Marty Robbins horns, All Over Again is a testament to the power and glory of Buck Owen’s Bakersfield sound, Forgive Me is drenched in Patsy Cline vocal stylings, and Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guitar work can be heard in the start to Dance In The Moonlight before the song takes off into an infectious samba beat. Through the entire album, Malo’s voice is as pure, powerful and sultry as ever. The man could sing the alphabet, Russian folk songs or David Foster Wallace’s 1,000 page Infinite Jest from start to finish and I would hang on every word and syllable.

But the highlights for me are That’s Not My Name and As Long As There’s Loving Tonight. In the former, Malo seems to be having playful fun with the Ting Tings song from 2008 when he sings: Lonely, Mr. Lonely/That’s what they’ll call me/That’s not my name. In Loving Tonight, it opens with a piano lead straight from Elvis Presley’s All Shook Up and rolls into a boogie woogie, up tempo number that could have been recorded at RCA’s Nashville studios in the 1950s replete with Chet Atkins playing a ‘galloping guitar’, Boots Randolph on the yakkety sax and the Jordanaires supplying the backing oohs and ahhs as Malo complains of his lover: ‘She’s always getting her way/With little or nothing to say/When I know she’s wrong, that’s alright/ As long as there’s loving tonight’. As Dewey Phillips used to say on Memphis radio, “That’ll get it man, that’ll flat get it.”

But, this is not simply a matter of a cover band paying homage to their influences worn on their sleeves. Like true artists, the band and singer are able to pay tribute to those who came before while finding their own voices and own styles, and The Mavericks create their own sound in buckets and spades.  Go out and get this album, and tell em’ Phillips sent ya’.

Coda

And if someday, you just have one of those days and need to get away for a few minutes, take a listen to the superlative Dream River from The Mavericks album, Trampoline. Close your eyes, listen and float away down the Dream River. ‘Don’t wake because I don’t mind.’