Top 5 Underrated Songs by The Airborne Toxic Event

Posted: December 23, 2013 in 5's
Tags: , , , , , ,
Anna Bulbrook of The Airborne Toxic Event, circa 2011 Photo by Glen Hoos

Anna Bulbrook of The Airborne Toxic Event
Photo by Glen Hoos, 2011

By Adi

You can say, okay, what are you trying to get across? And the best thing you can do is just – ‘everyone, shut the fuck up’ and we’ll play the record. Because if we could describe it, we wouldn’t have had to make it. (Mikel Jollett, FUSE TV interview, January 2013)

I’ll be honest – I started this post because I really wanted to talk about Tokyo Radio. Not how it relates to me, because while everyone has their own reasons for listening to The Airborne Toxic Event, it all comes down to the same thing – we connect with the tracks. “The most interesting things that ever happened in music, happen between the ears of somebody listening to their favorite song,” Mikel has said more than once. “The ideas that it conjures, the emotion that it conjures. It’s the sense of relevance and communication, kindred spirits. The rest is just bullshit.” Pretty spot on. There’s no point in trying to convince someone of a song’s brilliance when they just don’t connect with it. Having said that, I do believe that there are a handful of Airborne songs that are pretty underrated. So consider this a public service announcement to give the following songs another spin. They’re worth it.

1. Tokyo Radio

Described by Mikel as a song about “being lost on tour,” “Tokyo Radio” feels like a cry from beginning to end. The opening guitar and keys are roughly interrupted by abrupt staccato bangs on the drums, giving the impression of a heart struggling to beat before bleeding out all over the song. Everything about the track feels raw and exposed, something that’s heard best in Mikel’s slightly distorted vocals. “I’m sorry, I haven’t slept in weeks. It’s a waking dream at best, I could use a little less.” There’s a plea in there, followed by a quiet resignation which only adds to the punch-in-the-gut feeling that the song provokes: “I stare at the ground and tune my strings. We’ve got 3 days to the show, I’ve got nowhere else to go.”

It’s not the only Airborne track dealing with the chaos of being on tour. “Numb” famously covered the rapid-fire montage set to music experience of continuous shows and waking up hung-over to the thumping beat of sound checks. But “Tokyo Radio” takes this tour-narrative a step further: there’s a different desolation woven through the words, reminiscent of “Wishing Well” (“You screamed, you cried, you thought suicide was an alibi”) and “Heaven Is A Map” (“If heaven is just a long road home, tell me it’s true – I’ll go too”).  It speaks about being pushed beyond, needing to give more all the time and hitting that moment where you just can’t take it anymore: “I was thinking of jumping from my window last night – I’ve got one more year to live, I’ve got nothing left to give.” Through the years, the song has only made a few rare appearances on stage; Mikel’s and Steven’s guitars both wailing, while Noah starts on synth then switches to bass. “Tokyo Radio” is a personal favorite of mine, and a track best experienced live, or with a good set of headphones.

2. The Winning Side

From the moment the song kicks off it’s a non-stop sprint in more than one way. “The Winning Side” probably holds the title for most topics touched upon in an Airborne song – as Mikel himself said, “[T]his song is about a lot of things.” One of those things stands out in particular – the references to the armed forces, making it impossible not to relate the song to the band’s charity work with The Wounded Warrior Project (for which they raised $25.000 in one night with a benefit concert) and the song “The Kids Are Ready To Die” from their second album. “It’s not about politics or whether you’re left or right,” Mikel has said many times during concerts and promo appearances. “It’s important as Americans to take care of your boys when they come home from war. It’s important that Americans question their leaders.”

“He says, the sky falls and your duty calls – man, it takes some balls to be so obscene,” does precisely that, as the song was written and recorded during the Bush administration. But that’s not the sole focus of the track – it skips through personal regrets, the mortality of the self and of loved ones, and even what appears to be a nod to Mikel’s years in the corporate world. “Like every day is just a loss, spent arguing with your boss over a coffee break – well, the same is true for me, I mean one more indignity and I’m going to break,” he snaps, before mentioning all the “white noise and the static” on the screens, which effortlessly pulls in the band’s name origins from the novel by Don DeLilo. The lyrics go on and on, backed up by keys, guitars, bass and drum in a rising crescendo – but just as captivating is a stripped down version of the song at Fingerprints, Long Beach, CA in 2008. Impulsively deciding to honor a request from the audience, the band takes a moment to prepare while Anna tells the crowd, “This is pretty much how we arrange all of our acoustic songs.” Album release or acoustic performance – both versions do full justice to the song.

3. The Girls in Their Summer Dresses

It’s impossible to overlook the band’s literary influences. Mikel, in particular, has been vocal about his favorite authors – Milan Kundera, Philip Roth and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He credits the latter two with having “shared a desire to be unflinching in the face of terrible things. I really admire them for that.” Drawing inspiration and its title from Irwin Shaw’s short story, “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” reframes the story’s argument between a man and his wife when she confronts him with his wandering eye. “Are you mad again? If you like, I’ll take it back. They’re just your feelings, I wasn’t looking at her ass,” Mikel sings, a line that, without fail, provides a playful moment onstage with Anna.

As can be heard in several Airborne songs, there is a striking contrast between the events happening in the lyrics versus the music. The latter is upbeat and almost cheerful, befitting the first few lines of the song with their “golden rays of sunlight on the subway tracks,” rather than the actual fight. But that blend is precisely what makes the song interesting. You’re not getting narrowly framed tidbits of predictable music, but a layered track – both lyrically as well as musically – that has a back story. Daren’s cymbals punctuate the “oh no, no, no” chants before the band heads into the final verse – the man’s defense as he argues that he was only honestly answering his wife’s question on why he keeps looking at the girls. Do you need to know the original story in order to like the song? Not really. But if you like your fair share of band trivia or are interested in writing, it’s interesting to discover how a classic Irwin Shaw story became an Airborne song.

4. I Don’t Want To Be On TV

One thing the band has always been quick to point out is that their roots are firmly in East LA – this is not a glossy La La Land band. But the song I Don’t Want To Be On TV seems to give a nod to that ‘other LA,’ which eventually landed the song a spot on the 2009 NCIS: Official TV Soundtrack. The track kicks off with, “It’s so quiet in here tonight, she looks skinny in the light, in her underwear her face so fair, she’s higher than a kite,” accompanied by a catchy bass riff that will remain stuck in your head for the rest of the day.

Call it social commentary on the city, or perhaps experience that has been lived through. Either way, “I Don’t Want To Be On TV” stands out from much of the Airborne repertoire. There is the song structure that employs a simple “Oh no oh, I don’t want to be on TV” for a chorus – but it’s also one of a very few (if not the only) non-album tracks that’s musically more captivating than the lyrics. An early performance of the song in 2007 features the presence of TV screens onstage showing mere DeLilo’s static; fans will remember this from the early stage setups, which have been described by the band as starting out as an art project. The screens aren’t part of their stage nowadays, but they hold their charm as the performance offers a glimpse of the band’s beginnings in their old (East LA, represent!) neighborhood. Not your ‘typical’ Airborne song – if there even is such a thing – but worth checking out if you’re not familiar with it, or haven’t listened in awhile.

5. Echo Park

Unlike the other songs listed here, “Echo Park” was never officially released and has only been played during live shows. The title points to the neighborhood where the band started out in 2007, playing at small venues such as the Echo and the fabled residency at Spaceland. What makes the song so catchy is the confessional tone Mikel strikes, as if sharing the story over a warm whiskey with a friend.  This is a characteristic found on several debut album tracks; self-aware, but tongue in cheek with a nod to how messed up things were. “Fuck, I gotta get my head together, just give me some time to catch my breath,” Mikel starts off, then adding “my head is just a wreck,” reminiscent of the closing lines of “Papillon” (“I’d be alright I guess, if I wasn’t such a mess”).

Heavy on the guitars, the song talks about a girl with whom things did not work out – yet he’s unable to get her off his mind. “The thing feels like a waste of breath, like some ashes from a cigarette you’ve already smoked,” he sings, as frustration swells his voice from an almost conversational tone to a screamed “I choked, I choked!” As with many other songs, Anna and Noah are on board to provide additional vocals, backing up Mikel who trails off into a little rant as he closes the song, wondering “what you’re doing, where you are, who you’re with.” It’s a shame that there isn’t an official recording of the song, but when watching the live performance, it strikes you that maybe that’s exactly how it should be – sweat and curses included – instead of bottled up and neatly contained.

Get the Music:

Tokyo Radio (Bonus Track) – All At Once (Deluxe Edition)
The Winning Side (Bonus Track) – The Airborne Toxic Event (Deluxe Edition)
The Girls In Their Summer Dresses (Bonus Track) – The Airborne Toxic Event (Deluxe Edition)
I Don’t Want to Be On TV – NCIS (The Official TV Soundtrack)

AdindaAdi lives somewhere in between Amsterdam and Detroit, touting Missy as an example for ‘trying to figure out what you’re gonna do with your life.’ She travels around the world as she writes, designs and works for non-profit organizations while plotting her next move.

  1. Thanks Adinda for such an interesting article.
    Thinking about this, I guess as the group itself is immensely underrated by the general public, so must most if not all of their tracks. How many of Joe Public will have even heard of *Innocence* I ponder?
    I, like many others first saw the band perform *Sometime Around Midnight* live on TV. How many will not have heard the acoustic version? All versions of this song are great, but for me, as with many of their songs, the acoustic version is by far my favourite. The intense vocal by Mikel on this is something else. My opinion, but I have not heard him produce a better vocal. (no, not even on Innocence). Soft initial tenderness is gradually replaced by sheer *end of the world* desperation in his voice.
    Bottom line, although easily TATE’s most popular song, I still feel it underrated.

    My pick for the most underrated would be a newish one called *Dublin*. Maybe you need to have lived there and know the city well enough to appreciate how well this song captures the timelessness and troubled history of this city and a feeling for the great literary figures that have lived there. Many will not have heard it yet. When they do, I urge them especially to listen to the first few bars. The sombre intro completely captures the atmosphere of this city in a most magical way. Without a word of lyrics spoken, you are in the front door of the place…
    Is there another group out there that can translate such empathy, feeling & emotion into song?


    • Wow, such an eloquent response Keith – worthy of a post of its own. And yes, I agree, the band as a whole is tragically underrated and sadly unknown. The nature of the music industry and radio today is such that most people will never hear Innocence. They have no idea what they’re missing!


  2. Selfishly, there is a part of me that doesn’t want TATE to get famous; I prefer intimate venues, not American football stadiums.
    However, have patience Glen, cream always rises to the top.
    I think the band is ready; the question for me is, am I?


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