The Airborne Toxic Event - Manchester Ruby Lounge
With their month long conquering of the UK near completion, The Airborne Toxic Event head for Manchester’s ‘cosy’ Ruby Lounge. UK audiences, as made clear tonight, will be most familiar with the epic ‘Sometime Around Midnight’, a slow-burning mini-epic that details the madness that ensues when the girl who doesn’t know you exist heads off with the college quarterback. Then sends you a bit mental. It is really rather fine; it’s what Arcade Fire would have sounded like if they’d been from, like this lot, LA. Or if the likes of Lindsay Buckingham did ‘a Johnny Marr’ with them.
Some may be vaguely aware of the kerfuffle caused last year when Pitchfork cruelly demolished their album on its US release and the aggrieved but measured response band leader Mikel Jollett posted on their website as a response. Picking up on a theme that simply won’t leave them, is there any band TATE have not been compared to ? Just because there’s strings they’re the new Arcade Fire and because they do the jerky but minimal riffola, screams of “The Strokes !”
For those of you curious but wary, let me offer you a half rhyme of a comparison, if you will. In their august and austere delivery and preoccupations I hear echoes of some of the great lost British bands of the 80s – The Sound, The Comsat Angels, even a touch of early Furs (particularly on the tracks where Jollett substitutes anguished yelp for Richard Butler gravel.) When they stumble further into the darkened swamp, it’s altogether more Violent Femmes (the ghost of Gordan Gano SCREAMS through ‘Missy’) with hints of Australia’s magnificent and under-appreciated Drones. You sense a kinship with The Dears’ Murray Lightbourne, another non-starry type whose literacy and studied mapping of the heart's unfailing failings inspire select devotion. Whatever, TATE’s special brew is heady and frequently intoxicating.
Onstage, they deliver a clout more guttural, distinctly more febrile than the single suggests. In front of a crowd showing familiarity with an album whose UK release is a week away, at times they almost short the creative process. ‘Wishing Well’, with its stream-of-consciousness breathlessness, sounds almost improvised. ‘Missy’, bizarrely, starts like something Phoebe once sung on ‘Friends’ until the band ravage its faux-folk doors. Album closer ‘Innocence’ is tonight’s biggest fire; over seven invigorating minutes, it builds from hayloft arpeggio to enraged feedback squall. I expect its almost shapeless form, but beguiling progression, to be one of my most abiding memories of 2009. On record it thrills, played live it howls.
There are cheers for ‘Sometime After Midnight’ and its extended viola intro. The crowd bounces around to the easier-to-grasp ‘Happiness is Overrated’ and ‘Gasoline’, with its similarity, it has to be said, to Razorlight … but it’s not just different colours, it’s different shades and TATE, with their obvious and undeniable magpie instincts ... well so what if they end up in the wrong nest every now and then ? Jollett thanks the crowd over and over. “We feel like we’re amongst friends tonight.” So would I if I had 300 people hanging on my every move and I was coming back in April for bigger gigs that sold out in minutes. Still, a bit of charm from the front man is never to be sniffed at. He thanks us again for “looking after Anna” when she goes crowd-surfing with her viola.
One is left with a sense of someone who can’t quite believe that the plan might just have worked … but then has the sense not to go and spoil it all with a tedious, standard issue, past its sell-by-date top coat of Rock ‘n’ Roll Smug. A possible irony here is that for music that so openly and candidly documents its singer’s woes, broken hearts, daft mistakes, it could well be not just miserable but self-indulgent too. But I find something genuinely uplifting, energising, moving about these crazed confessionals and their unexpectedly, fantastically elementary coating.
The Airborne Toxic Event may well never be cool, but I care not one jot for their questionable provenance. (Jollett was a freelance journalist who finally decided to write some songs and then sought out musicians in his locale of Silver Lake, LA who might fit help bring them to life. Right, so – how else do you form a band ? Meet at school and plug away until you think you know it all come your three night residency at the f***ing Astoria on your 18th birthday ?) For me, operating outside of any damnable scene they capture something electric and deeply stirring, and the realization, the raggedy but astute execution, of their music sings of skyward ambition and intent. It sets the scene, and hopefully the pace, for alternative rock in 2009.