As I Navigate Through the Dope Machines and Revel in Songs of God and Whiskey

Posted: March 11, 2015 in A Little Less Profound
Tags: , , ,
Mikel Jollett, Anna Bulbrook and The Airborne Toxic Event unplug for Songs of God and Whiskey. Photo by Ayaz Asif (https://www.facebook.com/AyazAsifPhotography).

Mikel Jollett, Anna Bulbrook and The Airborne Toxic Event unplug for Songs of God and Whiskey. Photo by Ayaz Asif (https://www.facebook.com/AyazAsifPhotography).

By Julie

Well, this is awkward. A few days before the release of The Airborne Toxic Event’s new album, Dope Machines, I had written a 700 word lament about the treacherous intersection of music and the music business and Airborne’s precarious and uneasy placement in it. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the synth pop and electronics on their fourth album, Dope Machines. Heck, Mikel could metamorphose overnight into a hip-hop artist and I would be busy interpreting his raps and doing that whole hand pumping thing that hip-hop fans do.

No, it wasn’t the deeper immersion into the world of synthesizers and drum machines that bothered me. It was something else — the disturbing sense of an underlying story, a subtext, an immovable object I could neither ignore nor navigate around that was preventing me from enjoying my Airborne music. At that dangerous intersection of music and music business, there had been a grisly multi-car pileup.

My queasiness started when I came across the credits for a few of the new songs online. There were several names I didn’t recognize, and it wasn’t just the mixing and mastering engineers. There were keyboard players. There were backing vocalists. There was a co-writer with Mikel for “California,” the first time a non-band member has ever been involved in the songwriting process. What’s more, it was a woman who, according to Wikipedia, composes and produces hit songs for performers like Christina Aguilera and Gwen Stefani. Most notably, there was a producer listed who has also worked with Christina Aguilera in addition to Wavves, Blink-182, Lissy Trullie and Santigold. Not only did these not seem like the sort of people Mikel would choose to work with (nor the artists he would wish to be grouped with); it also didn’t square with what Mikel told Darren Rose nine months earlier, quite adamantly — that he intended to produce Dope Machines himself. At that time, he said he had the entire album nearly done and didn’t want to redo it in a fancy studio or have anyone change anything whatsoever on it. Clearly something had happened.

Around the same time, I read an article which talked about today’s music recording process. Anyone who holds dear to their hearts the vision of a songwriter channeling their muse and exploring their artistic vision alone in a room and then releasing their child to the world, hoping that it connected with someone out there, should not read this article.

As a rabid purist when it comes to artists who mean a great deal to me, the mere suggestion that some outside entity may have tampered with Mikel’s original vision for this album threw me into what I can only describe as a vortex of rage and despair. I’m not privy to the actual details of what went on between May 2014 and February 2015, but according to that Darren Rose interview, Mikel had taught himself what he needed to know to compose, perform and record the album in his home studio. It sounded like there would be small contributions from the band, but primarily it would be Mikel’s own work. There was never any mention of outside collaborations or any of these people I now saw listed as contributors. So my suspicions and speculations arose and I wrote my handwringing thesis. And then I wondered what the hell to do with it. Publish or don’t publish? Publish on my own blog only? Just burn the goddamn thing and sit this one out?

In the hours before Dope Machines had its U.S. release, I had decided on the latter. I didn’t want people to think that I just didn’t like Mikel trying something different (which wasn’t true), but I was in a quandary. It’s not in my nature to ignore something that disturbs me if it feels important, but I’ve always wanted to be supportive and do the right thing by this band. A week later and in light of the events that followed, I switched course on what has been a roller coaster ride of mixed emotions.

I still don’t know what actually happened. So here’s the disclaimer:

These are my opinions only, based on observations. Some of what I say will likely not please some Airborne fans, but I believe that part of being a fan, especially of a band like Airborne who takes their craft very seriously, is thoughtfully engaging their work and offering constructive criticism when it’s warranted.

To the question of “what happened,” Mikel might have just changed his mind about producing and recording the album entirely by himself, but I think that’s unlikely. He believes very strongly in his vision for his music, and he has been quite vocal about preferring the demos of certain songs (like “Numb” and “It Doesn’t Mean A Thing”) to the recorded versions on the albums. If my suspicions are true, then Epic brought in some of their own people to work with Mikel because either they weren’t happy with what he gave them or because they wanted additional polish to make the songs “radio ready.” Yet who am I to say what is or isn’t necessary these days for pop music success? And doesn’t this band deserve to be more widely known after 8-1/2 years of hard slog?

Back in March of 2009, when the band was first starting to take off on the massive strength of their unlikely radio hit “Sometime Around Midnight” and their home recording, originally released on the feisty indie label Majordomo, everything seemed possible. That album had been residing in the bottom half of the Billboard Top 200 sales chart for six months. At the time, I likened their rise to that of a jet plane on take-off, and the best part was that it was completely organic, by word of mouth from fan to fan. I was convinced that this band would be huge in a short span of time, playing stadiums, at the top of the Billboard charts, winning Grammys.

Six years later, clearly that didn’t happen. They’re successful, sure, but not at the level I was envisioning for them, the kind of success they deserved then and deserve even more now. They’ve raised their game by leaps and bounds with each release, becoming more complex and multi-textured musically and lyrically, breaking new ground and exploring new territory, but they’re still relatively unknown in the larger musical landscape. If a glossy smooth production with zero imperfections, a hotshot producer and hit writer is what it takes now to appeal to the masses, who am I to deny Airborne a shot at that sort of success?

And yet, the whole situation saddened me, because despite all the good intentions I was now hearing on Dope Machines, an album with some undeniably catchy dance music and an equal measure of more literary moody ballads, the damn thing was, to my ears, insanely overproduced and over-polished. What was even worse, for the first half of the album it seemed that Mikel’s considerable lyrical prowess had been put on a very tight leash in the service of snappy pop songs that would appeal to less sophisticated tastes and the lowest common denominator. In fact, it seemed to be a statement that a mainstream audience would only respond to something catchy and simplistic; that anything the least bit challenging or with any depth would be instantly rejected. For me, this signified that Mikel had given up trying to achieve success on his own terms, with his novelist’s song lyrics and an insanely talented band crafting the perfect soundtrack around his stories and doing whatever they felt artistically inspired to do. This had nothing to do with musical genre. Airborne has always been a multi-genre band. This new approach Mikel was taking, without his band and instead with “pop music professionals” felt incredibly cynical, but one could hardly blame him after eight years in this stinky business. I couldn’t help but wonder what these songs sounded like at the time of that Darren Rose interview. So these are the sorts of contemplations I was having, listening to the initial tracks from Dope Machines and wondering how much of Mikel, never mind the others, was actually on there.

And then a beautiful bombshell was dropped, on the eve of the official release. There would not be just one but rather two albums dropping at midnight. There had not even been an inkling that this might be happening, and it took everyone by complete surprise. Later that night, just after midnight, I was sitting in my dark office with just the glow from my Netbook, headphones on my head and eyes tightly closed, breathlessly listening to Songs Of God and Whiskey. Tears were running down my cheeks. I was sobbing at the ferocious angst and power of “Poor Isaac,” laughing at the sudden and completely unexpected mariachi horns of “Cocaine and Abel” and trembling uncontrollably at the stripped down acoustic folk songs, my heart thumping in my throat. I would say that this is the kind of effect Airborne’s music has on me in its pristine, unadulterated form, but I’ve never had a reaction quite like that before. Maybe the sheer enjoyment of the music — a combination of angst-driven rock songs, soul-stirring folk music and even a bit of spritely alt country, with ear-tickling acoustic guitar, piano and violin/viola — was enhanced by profound relief that Mikel hadn’t abandoned his muse. These gorgeous songs were bursting with his insightful perceptions and intricate prose. The musical accompaniment, whether just acoustic guitar and viola or full band mayhem, fit the lyrics and subject matter like a tight, seamless skin. This was the Airborne I first fell in love with in 2008.

It was the most incredible, most powerful collection of music I had ever heard. Despite it being released at the last minute as mp3s on the band’s own site, this beautiful creation that is Songs Of God and Whiskey isn’t just a bunch of lo-fi demos on some garage band’s basement tape. The recorded sound is crystal clear and stunning — masterfully composed, arranged and engineered by talented professionals. Mikel’s vocals are right up front and in your face, with each of the band members’ instruments clearly defined. It’s the type of quality production I greatly admired on their debut album and on the Disney Hall CD — crisp, clean and unmarred by that glossy veneer that gets indiscriminately slathered onto nearly every top 40 pop song these days. My apologies to fans of American Idol and its pop superstar brethren, but I prefer my music without the synthetic perfection and high gloss polish.

Back to the music. Recovering from the earth-shaking existential fury of “Poor Isaac” and drug-addled zaniness of “Cocaine and Abel,” there’s some sweet little studio banter and straight into, good heavens, some damn fine Americana and fatherly advice in “A Certain Type of Girl.” If you’ve ever wondered if classically-trained violinist Anna could hold her own in a hoedown, wonder no more. She nails it. With that song alone, they could secure themselves a slot at this year’s Newport Folk Festival. Handclaps, tinkling barroom piano — my god, it’s wonderful. “Change and Change and Change and Change,” a beautiful folk-tinged tale of the storyteller’s personal struggles with the ups and downs of a romance, dates back at least as far as 2009, when Mikel performed it solo on acoustic guitar at a little-known Artists in Aid Christmas benefit in Los Angeles (with The Growlers, Red Cortez and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit). Incidentally, “A Certain Type of Girl” was also on the set list for that same show but not performed.

There’s the breathtaking “April Is The Cruelest Month,” with just acoustic guitar and Anna’s viola and which owes at least a small debt to Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” and the folksy rock (with more lovely viola) of “The Lines of the Cars” (a.k.a. “Waves and Radiation“). Those songs were both performed at Web In Front and Classical Geek Theatre’s “My Little Underground” solo acoustic show at Bordello in Los Angeles on July 8, 2008.

“Strangers” is another alt country-flavored stunner with very effective bits of falsetto thrown in there (and this is coming from someone who typically doesn’t care for a lot of falsetto, but when it works, it touches the soul). “Why Why Why” is another shining example of what happens when Mikel’s cutting commentary has a head-on collision with some charming country-folk music. It’s absolute magic. It would take another thousand words (at least) to discuss the lyrics on this album with any deserved depth, so we’ll just leave it at that.

Of special note is the inclusion of “California” as a very basic acoustic folk song with a soft hippie vibe. Just as Mikel preferred the demo version of “Numb” to the one that ended up on “All At Once,” I’ll assume he preferred this acoustic version to what ended up on Dope Machines and wanted it to see the light of day. The simple acoustic guitar and piano accompaniment with Mikel’s strained vocals fit the subject matter of California dreaming and idealism turned to disillusionment far better than the middle-of-the-road treatment on Dope Machines. And indeed, this is the song that was co-written with ‘pop hit writer’ Linda Perry, currently being peddled to Adult Contemporary radio. “Sometime Around Midnight” made its way to AC stations also, but in that case, it was a natural appearance, based on the fact that the song was just so fucking good that everyone, despite their musical sensibilities, loved it.

“The Fall of Rome” needs no introduction. From the moment it was first performed at Higher Ground in Burlington, Vermont back in October and I stood there trembling, trying to film the damn thing without dropping my camera, I knew this song was special, and the fans have been clamoring for it ever since. It’s performed here just as it was that night, with Mikel on acoustic guitar. The one difference is the addition of Anna’s gorgeous viola. Perfect.

The tragedy, in my mind, is that Songs wasn’t the official release. But maybe that’s just my hippie heart talking and I’m being naïve. In my perfect world, this heartfelt and honest collection of songs would be instantly embraced by the mainstream music audience, giving the band their well-deserved chart-topping success. And why not? They did it before with their debut album on Majordomo. Silversun Pickups made it all the way to the Grammys with Dangerbird, and there have certainly been other bands on indie labels that have chart success and do pretty well. Do the benefits of being on a major label really outweigh artistic freedom, faithful representation of the music and honest marketing?

Songs Of God and Whiskey deserves a proper release. It is an artistic masterpiece, 32:57 of musical and lyrical perfection. This breathless beauty — lyrically dense, exquisitely composed and recorded and then just stuffed into a zip file of mp3s — is like a stunning creature locked away in a tower, never to be seen except by a precious few.

Now, I could be cynical here and say that Songs was a savvy move to satisfy Airborne’s core audience (and to quiet early grumblings about the electronic direction) so as not to alienate the old before you’re certain you can pull in the new. Hot on the heels of the double release was an announcement of a handful of special intimate performances in small venues where they’ll be performing all of Dope Machines (and hopefully at least some of SoGaW). The two East Coast shows have historic significance. The show in Brooklyn is six years to the day of their first headlining show in New York at the Bowery Ballroom. The Boston shows at the Paradise Rock Club are six years and one week after they first played here as headliners in 2009, in that very same venue. And now Mikel has set up camp on his despised Facebook for an outpouring of highly literate social observations and insights into his inspiration for each song, which of course the faithful (and I include myself in this group) drink up like parched desert nomads. It’s a heaping helping of the kind of honesty and intimacy that, along with their stunning music and sophisticated lyrical content, pulled me into the fold in the first place. That’s one smart marketing move. Yes, I could be cynical and say something like this, but I’m trying to rid myself of that nasty mistrust I seem to always have of people and their motives. I’d rather believe, regardless of whatever happened in the making of Dope Machines, that Mikel still wants to connect with his audience in an honest way and that he felt the need to get those additional songs, wild stallions that had been galloping around in his mind, out to those who would appreciate them the most.

Still buzzing from Songs, I’ve now had a closer listen to Dope Machines, this time with the headphones. A curious phenomenon has occurred. Now that I have the earthier, stripped down and deeply satisfying acoustic folk and rock album to enjoy, I’m beginning to see Dope Machines in a new light and it has become a lot more fun. The first half, which I started out not liking at all, has taken on a more playful tone. I’m now smiling at the “beeps and boops” of ’80s synth pop and the catchiness of the tunes (“Tainted Love,” anyone?) and I’m able to take it far less seriously. I am also able to hear Mikel’s underlying intention, though deeply buried under layers of production. I’m still not a big fan of that glossy sound or the simplified lyrics, but if it gains them new fans who then delve into their headier material, then surely that’s a good thing.

As we move into the second half of Dope Machines with “Hell and Back” as the divider line, it’s as though we arrive at a completely different album. The electronics are still present but are put in service of the lyrical content and mood of the song, as it should be, with Mikel’s vocals as the centerpiece. For the stunning “My Childish Bride,” “The Thing About Dreams,” “Something You Lost” and “Chains,” softer electronic treatments, airy backing vocals, more natural sounding percussion and treated piano or whatever it is works remarkably well. Even the pristine, cavernous production seems just right for these songs.

It’s odd that the album was divided in this way, rather than interspersing the synth-pop with the dreamy, somber and introspective ballads as the band might do in a live show. Sticking these gems at the end only serves to point out the failings of the first part of this album even more poignantly. It’s also unfortunate for those who might sample the first few tracks only and assume that’s what the entire album sounds like and as deep as it lyrically goes. Unfortunately, Mikel’s eloquent observations on Facebook that are revealing the significant depth of thought behind each song are only being seen by a relatively small handful of already loyal followers.

Sonically as well as lyrically, there’s some experimentation in the later songs which feels like far more of a departure from the norm than the frankly tired electronica that’s been done so much before by so many others. A personal favorite is the appropriately spacy and psychedelic “The Thing About Dreams,” but “Bride” and “Lost” are equally revelatory. “Chains” ushers in familiar Airborne symbols like orchestral elements and Anna’s viola, so naturally that’s one everyone gravitated toward right away — and indeed, it’s striking in its stark desolation. These last four songs, for me, are the most interesting, though I will say that “One Time Thing” possesses the same addictive spunkiness as the first Airborne song to catch my attention way back in January 2008, “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?”

If you’ve made it to the end of this thesis, you’d have gathered by now that this band is very special to me. Since I first wrote about them in July of 2008, I’ve never written anything half-heartedly. Where Airborne is concerned, a few hundred words is a strong opinion. Three thousand words is a deeply held belief. I would say it is absolutely essential to expand one’s horizons and step outside one’s comfort zone in order to grow. That’s true for anyone, and especially for a creative person. At the same time, I believe it is a spiritual obligation to honor one’s innate gifts and build upon one’s individual strengths. To have insight into the human experience and eloquence of expression is not a gift that everyone possesses. It is something far too important to ever be compromised or cast off.

If I were to wish for anything for Airborne and for Mikel especially, it is this: that they always remain true to themselves, despite what anyone tells them, whether it’s a label A&R person, radio surveys or even popular opinion. Or the opinion of a superfan.

JulieAlong with writing regularly for This Is Nowhere, Julie publishes musingsfromboston.com, a music blog with the bipolar personality of wannabe philosopher and charlatan music critic, where she is just as likely to review the audience as she is the band. Her first Airborne show was at a lingerie party hosted by WFNX at an Irish-Mexican bar in Boston’s financial district. She does her best to live by the motto “only one who attempts the absurd can achieve the impossible.”


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Comments
  1. shyra aka lady rabin says:

    Julie. I have to say I really do love Dope Machines, but id be lying if I said I did not agree that this was much more “polished” and I too was disappointed to see that what he claimed to be self produced was not entirely self done and that outsiders….pop outsiders were brought in to “help”. I prefer their more organic- such as the 2nd surprise album. To be honest, I think that because of Songs of God & Whiskey, I was able to really enjoy Dope Machines because I could still hear what initially drew me to this band. Thank you for your honest opinion.

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  2. bluesboots says:

    Thank you for your wonderful words. I’ve been a TATE fan since the beginning, and SOG&W made me fall in love with the band all over again 🙂

    On the other hand, if would be really really nice if the CD I ordered of Dope Machines from their website would get here, so I could listen and form an opinion of those songs. At this rate, I’m not at all pleased with the ordering and delivery (or lack of) process, and I’m trying to not let that give me a bitter feeling about Dope Machines before I’ve even heard it.

    Like

  3. Marc Kushner says:

    Julie. I finally got a chance to read this. Could not agree with you more. SOGW might be my favorite album of all time, which makes Dope Machines a fun little diversion for me. If SOGW had not been released, I would enjoy DM less and resent it more for what I would have viewed as its inauthenticity. SOGW makes it all better. Keep writing. You’re great. Marc

    Liked by 1 person

  4. […] As I Navigate Through the Dope Machines and Revel in Songs of God and Whiskey – An alternate take on the two new albums from Julie Stoller. Thank you, Julie, for all you have contributed over the past couple of years, both publicly and behind the scenes. […]

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