“We’re kind of genre-less. I think we play lots of styles of music… We’re musicians in the purest sense in that we’re not stuck to a genre. We just like music. If we liked polka, we’d probably play polka.”
– Mikel Jollett
No, you’re not imagining things: that is the same quote we used as the lead to our review of The Airborne Toxic Event’s Dope Machines. It’s entirely fitting, because if Dope Machines pushes TATE to the extreme end in one direction, Songs of God and Whiskey proves their versatility at the complete opposite end of the spectrum.
In case you were sleeping under a rock yesterday, The Airborne Toxic Event floored fans with the announcement of a surprise second album to drop the very same minute that Dope Machines hit virtual shelves in North America. Billed as an acoustic rock ‘n’ roll record, Songs of God and Whiskey is currently only available for purchase through the band’s website, as a digital download packaged with Dope Machines in various physical formats.
Here’s what Airborne had to say about the project:
The songs from Songs of God and Whiskey are taken from 10 years of songwriting. Some are quite new, some are quite old. All were recorded by us as a group in a small studio on a hill in Los Angeles (Mount Washington, to be exact). We’re not doing any tricky chicanery on the tracks to make them hard to copy or send or reproduce. We’re quite aware that makes them easy to be traded on file-sharing sites, but hey I guess that’s the world we live in. We trust you’ll be cool and buy it if you want it. It’s seven bucks—the same amount we would get from iTunes if we sold it there.
It would be fashionable to say we decided to forego the long process of promotion and distribution of the modern music industry as a way of doing our part to attempt to realign the music world to be a more artist friendly environment in which the blah blah blah… But it’s not really true. (Even though we very much agree with those principles).
With this, we just had a simple idea in mind: make it and put it out.
With minimal time to digest the news, let alone the songs themselves, we offer up our first impressions.
On first listen to Songs of God and Whiskey, I was immediately struck by the presence of something I didn’t realize I had been missing: the sheer fun of it all.
The past year has been in many respects a heavy one for The Airborne Toxic Event. Sure, there have been huge highs: a rain-soaked performance for the ages at Lollapalooza, the legendary three-night Fillmore residency, an electric fall tour across North America, and the introduction of exciting new material. But there have also been developments that cast a shadow over the whole enterprise, most notably the release of Noah Harmon (and the subsequent flood of “Where’s Noah?” questions that won’t seem to stop) and the trepidation of a significant portion of the fan base over the electronically-infused stylings of the new album. While the band has admirably soldiered on through the clamor, there has at times been a sense of having to prove themselves all over again.
While the getting here has not been easy, that’s part of what makes Songs of God and Whiskey such a joy. It’s a throwback to the days of five friends in a room, banging out tunes between laughs and beers.
Last night I tweeted, “Only The Airborne Toxic Event could produce an album off the side of their desk and come up with something so awesome.” That’s how it sounds to me: as if Mikel Jollett, Daren Taylor, Anna Bulbrook, Steven Chen and Adrian Rodriguez gathered together in a living room with a couple of beat-up old couches, a few guitars and a viola, and emerged 33-minutes later with a new record. It’s that fresh.
And yet, that would do a disservice to the amount of work that no doubt went into this labor of love. The lyrical depth, for starters, belies hour upon hour spent alone with pen in hand. From “Poor Isaac” to “April is the Cruelest Month” to “The Fall of Rome,” this is no light snack: there is a lot to chew on here, as one might expect from alcohol-fueled musings on the Almighty.
Tonally, Songs of God and Whiskey is akin to an album-length bombastic video, with a charming demo quality about it. Hearkening back to the days of Taylor pounding out the beat to “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” on a car ceiling, or tapping out the rhythm to “Something New” with one hand while steering a boat with the other, there are moments of sheer gratuitous frivolity: Jollett’s playful chuckle at the end of “Cocaine and Abel,” his hilarious nerd and homey voices at the start of “A Certain Type of Girl,” and tongue-in-cheek lyrics galore, all presented in a musical smorgasbord of styles that runs the gamut from rockabilly to barroom country to big band to introspective ballad.
Songs of God and Whiskey is The Airborne Toxic Event’s gift to fans. Combined with the utterly thrilling Dope Machines, Airborne has offered up more than enough to satisfy even the most insatiable among us (*raises hand*) for a very long time to come. It may also be their greatest gift to themselves: a reminder of why they all signed up for this crazy adventure in the first place.
Songs of God and Whiskey: Track by Track
Poor Isaac: When I heard this old Jollett demo soundchecked in Vancouver last month, my jaw dropped. What seemed like an out of left field choice for tuning up an acoustic guitar makes a lot more sense now. “Poor Isaac” rocks as hard as a (mostly) acoustic track can, Jollett’s voice seething with a rage befitting the character he’s voicing.
Cocaine and Abel: An infectious little ditty about the good, the bad and the morbid of a coke trip. (PSA: Don’t do drugs, kids.) Jollett’s wit is on full display here, and never before has such a destructive topic been so danceable, with a brass interlude that only adds to the happy juxtaposition.
A Certain Type of Girl: Opening with Jollett goofing around, and with a rhythm established by what sounds like a pencil rubbing against paper, “A Certain Type of Girl” ramps up into a full-on country hoedown, complete with saloon-style piano. Pure fun.
Change and Change and Change and Change: Perhaps my favorite song on the album, “Change and Change and Change and Change” is strongly reminiscent of “It Doesn’t Mean a Thing.” The lyrics find Jollett at his self-deprecating best: “So I fucked it up like I always do, I was born to be alone/I don’t even know if the words were true that I screamed into the phone.”
April is the Cruelest Month: One of two songs known to fans through old YouTube videos of a solo Jollett performance, “April” is a quiet dirge that one can easily imagine being sung in a darkened bar next to an empty whiskey bottle.
The Lines of the Cars: This White Noise inspired tune was known as “Waves and Radiation” when Jollett performed it back in 2008. Found in much brisker form here, it draws its subject matter from the first part of the book from whence the band got its name.
Strangers: “Strangers” brings a little Mexican flair to the proceedings, opening with a Spanish sounding guitar riff and soft maracas keeping time. Another energetic album highlight, notable for Jollett’s falsetto and a singalong refrain that calls back to “The Way Home.”
Why Why Why: Traversing familiar lyrical territory of loss and regret, “Why Why Why” is a soft touch, moving along at a comfortable pace and contrasting Jollett’s voice with Bulbrook’s delicate backing vocals.
California: A lovely acoustic take on the poppy, popular Dope Machines track. Stripping the instrumentation down to quiet guitars and piano allows the exquisite lyrics to take center stage.
The Fall of Rome: Debuted on the fall tour, “The Fall of Rome” has had TATE fans clamoring ever since, especially once it was revealed that it would not be on Dope Machines. Lyrically, it joins “The Graveyard Near the House” at the top of a long list of Jollett’s most poignant poetry. Bulbrook’s subtle viola is a very welcome addition to a song that has typically been played by the singer alone on his guitar.
Glen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere. He’s grateful for an understanding wife and kids who indulge his silly compulsion to chase a band all over the Pacific Northwest (and occasionally beyond) every time the opportunity arises.