2008 in review: The Airborne Toxic Event, and the 1.6



Emerging artists in Los Angeles certainly had their share of warm-and-fuzzies in 2008: No Age clattered its way into the national spotlight, dragging the noisy, adventurous Smell bands with them; Flying Lotus’ outer-space electro soundscapes flexed for the experimentalists; a band of veteran locals joined forces as Everest and released a great album on Neil Young’s label; ex-UCLA songstress Sara Bareilles earned two Grammy nominations for “Love Song;” and, even, love-her-or-hate-her Katy Perry boy-baited her way from ingenue to pop phenomenon.

pwm2008logo2But no L.A. story got tongues wagging like the Airborne Toxic Event’s improbable rise to the national airwaves — then the disemboweling its debut album received from Pitchfork Media and the ensuing counterattack by the band in the form of “An Open Letter to Pitchfork Media.” Oh, the drama: L.A.-based reviewer Ian Cohen gutted the album pretty artfully, rating it at 1.6; Airborne’s Mikel Jollett, himself a former music journo, responded with a mild-mannered missive that was widely distributed on other websites.

Writers and commenters on many national websites sharpened their knives. L.A. Times bloggers convened a roundtable. Names were called. The smoking areas at Eastside clubs bristled with gossip. How about that Pitchfork review? How about Pitchfork in general? What do you think of the album? What do you think of the band? And responding to a review: smart or dumb, or merely a clever ploy?

I was on the sidelines in September when this was going down, in between being laid off by the Times and launching this little website, so I did not get the opportunity to participate. Since I championed the band early on and know the parties involved (both Jollett and Cohen having written for the Times), I’ll add to the chatter.

First, the Airborne Toxic Event try really hard. It was apparent from the beginning that the quintet had a strong notion of what aesthetic they were trying to capture, and how to project it. In the quidnunc universe that Silver Lake can be, that set up TATE for some backlash even before their single “Sometime Around Midnight” was added to KROQ-FM’s rotation. Things like: “Omigod, did you hear they choreograph their stage moves?” and other supposed crimes against indiedom. (At least Silversun Pickups sold a hundred thousand or so records before anybody sniped their world.) The fact that Jollett, who is as hypersensitive as his songs might suggest, has rabbit ears and reads every single word written about his band only made things more edgy, no matter how magnanimous he was (and remains) toward the scene that supported Airborne, as well as the other bands that service that scene.

The album “The Airborne Toxic Event” arrived in August and I liked it. Its big, cathartic anthems remind me of a lot of things, from New Order to the Jesus & Mary Chain to Springsteen to the Smiths, and the arrangements keep it sonically interesting. There’s an honesty to its lovelornness that would attract me even if I had never been the poor sap who runs into his ex in a nightclub, or if I weren’t familiar with the songs’ backstories. Yes, it’s pretty slick, but I’m not one to dismiss music for being radio-ready. Indeed, I like Low Vs Diamond’s debut as much as Airborne’s. My only small complaint after spending a few months with the album is that the Morrissey-like mopery can wear thin.

Those are largely visceral reactions, and you’re not going to get visceral from Pitchfork. And that’s OK. It’s an entertainment website, no more the last word on anything than NME, Rolling Stone or Billybob’s Band Blog. The writing is compelling, and, like most music criticism, it forces you to consider what you are hearing from another perspective, to connect the left and right brains. That said: With the exception of extrapolating the Airborne Toxic Event’s rise to the musical hopes of Los Angeles (which if not fallacious was at least tangential), Ian Cohen’s review of the album was damn good. He acknowledged its musicality and drama and savaged it for what he perceived as lack of originality, backing up every one of his points. He bared his teeth, but at least he talked about the music, as opposed to the hatchet jobs that Jet and the Black Kids suffered at the hands of Pitchfork.

That Airborne felt compelled to respond left me conflicted. On one hand, Pitchfork is more old-school journalism than those dinosaurs known as newspapers. The dialogue is all one-way, from their hipster pedestals to us. No commenting. No letters to the editor. No discourse. No cheap shots back at the ‘Forkers after their schoolyard antics. So, with the preponderance of avenues available for bands to disseminate their point of view, why not using the level playing field of the Internet to your advantage?

Well, because it almost always looks bad to respond to a review. (Possible exception, and, notably, from a veteran artist.)

I asked TATE’s veteran publicist Jim Merlis whether he tried to dissuade the band from writing its response to Pitchfork. He said no, he welcomed it. I asked Jollett whether he had any hesitation in doing so. He said none at all. Still, by taking Pitchfork head-on, Airborne actually elevated that review’s profile — instead of being one voice in the wildnerness, suddenly the 1.6 became the tallest tree in the forest. (Plus, there was the small matter of professing “not to take reviews too seriously” and then going on for 800 words about it.) Indeed, the band even left itself open to accusations of publicity-grabbing, although I don’t for a second think that was its motive.

As heartfelt and even-handed as the response turned out to be, I think ultimately it was the wrong thing to do, especially (and it’s easy to lose sight of this) for a baby band that just released its debut album.

Keep it about the music. And bring on the sophomore effort.

Photo by Jeff Koga

Tomorrow: My favorite L.A. albums of the year
Friday: My favorite L.A. songs of the year