Sometimes it’s impossible to top what Wikipedia has to say about a CD. By way of introduction, let me quote liberally from the entry there.
On December 4, 2009, the Airborne Toxic Event played its final show in support of its debut album, giving a sold-out performance at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles. The show was presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and was the last of 354 shows performed by the band on its debut album cycle. The group was accompanied by the Calder Quartet, the Lalo Guerrero Children’s choir, the The Belmont High School marching band, Mexican Baile Folklorico dancers, and a number of guest musicians, including horn players and an accordionist.
As I start off the review with a lengthy quote, so The Airborne Toxic Event also starts off this performance with a long quote: the beginning of the second movement of Ravel’s string quartet. It’s a great piece, a great way to start off a rock concert, and flows really well into “Wishing Well,” giving a nice initial start to the show. But who let the band plan the next part of the set list: two of their songs only available as bonus tracks, the second of which is a slow ballad, and then an even slower ballad that’s a cover? How are the fans supposed to engage with this?
The band’s sole album at the point in time of this concert had ten tracks on it, but this performance ends up with 17, and only eight of the songs off of The Airborne Toxic Event. For the most part those songs are better on the record. I heard (I think from WNYC’s John Schaefer who I think was himself quoting somebody else) that an album is like a love letter and a concert is like a hot date. Which makes a live album a love letter about somebody else’s hot date. That feels about right, where the hugeness of the event doesn’t come through to your home listening.
The Airborne Toxic Event does not do things like other bands. They are relentless workaholics and always seem to be in ridiculously good cheer, belying the youthful angst of their lyrics, many of them so painfully publicly lived by lead singer Mikel Jollet. The deluxe edition of their second album, All At Once, came with a DVD that featured a video for every song, each one recorded in an unconventional live setting. For this concert they included a string quartet (the ensemble as well as the piece), a marching band, Mexican folk dancers, and a children’s choir.
Those new sounds pretty all add positively to the songs. And violist Anna Bulbrook’s voice is way more prominent here than it is on either album, making me long for its gorgeous qualities more in the studio. I bet it was a grand show, with even the classiness of an intermission thrown into the mix. It might even make a great DVD. With just audio, however, it comes through as kind of disjointed and overflowing, not tight. As I said, the performances from the studio are usually the better ones. In concert there’s too much applause and banter and attempting to add something grand to the song that ends up taking away from the punch that I loved so much on their debut. Jollet’s emotions come through, but he can’t sing as well live as he does with the studio magic.
The band’s big hit, “Sometime Around Midnight,” is probably one of the best, in more than one sense of that word, example of the aggrandizing phenomenon. Knowing it’s their epic emotional and accessible tune, it opens with an overwrought, slow opening riff on the band’s viola. It’s a little much to take, but by the end things have picked up enough and it comes close to rivaling the original, even causing me to hear new meaning in the lyrics.
The new songs are a mixed bag. On the plus side you’ve got the excellent “All I Ever Wanted,” which would appear on All At Once, but suffered there from horrid production qualities, making this the preferred version. “Goodbye Horses” is the other best new song and was apparently in The Silence Of The Lambs. There’s also a handful of B-sides from the band, the best of which is “This Losing,” which falls just shy of keep status. Then there are a few more covers, of songs by The Magnetic Fields and Ramones, neither of which is head-turning.
There’s a lot to like here, but it’s also pretty bloated, with long stretches of wandering leaving the good parts disconnected from each other. It’s fun to spend some time with, if you’re a fan, but I’m fine just taking the good parts and leaving the rest.
Keep: “String Quartet: II – Assez Vif: Très Rythmé,” “Wishing Well,” “Something New,” “Goodbye Horses,” “Sometime Around Midnight,” “All I Ever Wanted,” “Innocence”
Like: “This Losing,” “A Letter To Georgia,” “Duet,” “Gasoline,” “Happiness Is Overrated,” “Intermission,” “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?, “Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio?,” “Missy”
- String Quartet: II – Assez Vif: Très Rythmé – Modern. Flows right into next one. That piece itself is pretty awesome, but this seems a bit more muddled. Well the hall’s just so darn big and it’s recorded in that way, so you lose a lot of the crispness of a good studio recording recorded in a smaller room. And the audience applause gets in the way (I’m assuming that’s when the rockers walk out on stage). I like it a lot, though, so I guess I’ll keep it, though if I ever get a copy of a more traditional version I’ll probably drop this to like.
- Wishing Well – From The Airborne Toxic Event. Would have been a great transition if not for the bit of silence Zune Music Pass puts in there. Strings are sweet. His singing just isn’t as good live as it is on record. This is done well enough that I want to keep it.
- This Losing – It’s listed as a European Bonus Track on The Airborne Toxic Event on Wikipedia. This is an okay song. Mostly inoffensive. Props for not putting it on the main album; I’m always saying bands should leave off their non-killer stuff.
- A Letter To Georgia – Slow ballad. Mournful. Not very good.
- The Book Of Love – Dedicates to his grandma who had died a week earlier. It is by The Magnetic Fields and it seems Peter Gabriel covered it, too. Has its moments as a song, but I don’t like his imitation of his grandma’s voice at the beginning. I’m glad I listened to the original; that’s quite a good song. This, though. I wish he would have made more his own. His voice can’t carry that slow mourning thing that the original does, so it just comes off weird. Plus by adding in so much instrumentation and making it a bit longer, grander it distracts from how well the lyrics cohere across the song and change in minor ways from verse to verse and chorus to chorus a la Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Ditch.
- Something New – Man, the violist (Anna Bulbrook) is nailing the vocals this night. Gorgeous here. Features accordion, which adds some nice color. Really not crazy about his voice, and I like the uptempo version better. Still, I love her vocals.
- Duet – This show is really quiet, slow. Really taking a while to get going.
- Gasoline – Is this where the pace is going to start picking up? Female backing vox are so sexy, pretty. Totes feel the rush of blood. This is a bit of a sloppy version. It’s faster and just not tight. But gawd do I love those backing vocals. They almost make it keep, but like.
- Happiness Is Overrated – “I’m so sorry/I really lost my head”. Definitely loses its mix status right off and probably its keep status due to the banter-y stuff at the beginning. Plus it kind of seems like a country version. Ends with banter into intermission. This is nice with a very strong end, even maybe a bit more powerful than the original, but the silly banter keeps it down at like.
- Intermission – It’s the marching band playing some intermission-y music while the crowd claps along. Like.
- Does This Mean You’re Moving On? – Horns throughout. That’s a nice touch, but the studio version, a mix, is still superior. Like.
- Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio? – I guess it was by The Ramones. Pretty typical Ramones stuff.
- Sometime Around Midnight – From The Airborne Toxic Event. This is so obviously about an ex. How did I never get that? Why did I think it was about a stranger-cum-object-of-desire? This is too slow/epic at the beginning–they’re really playing up it’s big hitness–but it’s very good. Keep.
- Goodbye Horses – I’m digging this. Apparently, this is by Q Lazzarus and was in The Silence Of The Lambs.
- All I Ever Wanted – From All At Once. At least like…this song is just so good. Actually, this may end up being my better version of this song. It is. The studio version was keep, but it sounds like ass, particularly at the huge end where the dynamic compression gets to be way too much. This performance isn’t as nice or as clean (in areas other than dynamic compression), but it sure is nice to have a version that doesn’t run off the tracks at the end. Man, that album’s sound is a tragedy.
- Innocence – This version is over ten minutes long. Banter up top. Super slow at start where they tack on a completely new part that seems to be about suicide. I really like this, though. Found myself rockin’ out to the end pretty hard, so we’ll keep it.
- Missy – I remember them ending at least the first of the two shows I saw them do with this song. A children’s choir. The marching band plus the choir are freaking awesome. But there’s like a minute where there’s just a vamp and then there’s all the introductions of the band members, so it stays at like.