When I tell people that they should get off their asses and read Underworld and White Noise, I shit you not, the response I typically get is a frown and a question: “Oh. Is that the book that inspired the movie?” And part of me dies. Underworld, the only one that exists in my world anyway, is an amazing novel by Don DeLillo, a man whose literary gifts are unsurpassed. Literally every page of that book is a treat to read. Apparently, there is a horrid movie about werewolves or something that shares a title with DeLillo’s 1997 masterpiece but anyone who knows me (or has talked to me for five minutes) knows I’d never tell you to read a book that could inspire such awfulness.
I get the same question about White Noise (awful Michael Keaton movie where he hears dead people). White Noise is another great DeLillo novel which prominently features an airborne toxic event but is not about that event.
Say you’re a band from L.A., one of music’s biggest talent vacuums (people here still care about Axl Rose and Motley Crue), and you glance through White Noise. I know what you’re thinking: “Dude! The Airborne Toxic Event would be a hella tight name for a band! We can give props to a good writer and let our listeners know that we know how to read!” So you name your band The Airborne Toxic Event.
The Airborne Toxic Event did grab my interest, but understand something here: if you name your band after anything written by one of my favorite authors, you had better be fucking amazing (if any band names themselves after something out of Kurt Vonnegut, they have to be Hold Steady awesome to impress me). It is not enough to me that you can prove you flipped through a book – your band’s awesomeness has to be directly proportional to the awesomeness of the book you’re ripping off.
From DeLillo’s White Noise: “Murray said, ‘I don’t trust anybody’s nostalgia but my own. Nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage. It’s a settling of grievances between the present and the past. The more powerful the nostaliga, the closer you come to violence. War is the form nostalgia takes when men are hard-pressed to say something good about their country.'”
Do you think, dear six people who read this, that there is anything even close to that awesome on The Airborne Toxic Event’s debut album? Not even close. Mikel Jollet is the smokey baritone who bleats out the songs – at his best, he sounds like Matt Berninger and makes me want to listen to The National and at his worst, he sounds like an emo version of Mike Ness and makes me want to punch him in the balls.
The Airborne Toxic Event, to be fair, is not a horrible album. But is by no means good. When Jollet screams “I’m such a bore” on “Happiness is Overrated” (that song title should warn you what you’re in for), I’m quite inclined to agree with him. You’ve heard this album before – the best bits and the worst. The best bits are The Arcade Fire meets Tapes ‘n’ Tapes and the worst bits are The Plain White T’s meets every other emo band on the planet. Let’s do an experiment: listen to the first minute of “Wishing Well” from The Airborne Toxic Event and then listen to the first minute of “Neighborhood #1” from The Arcade Fire’s Funeral. Now multiply the feeling you get by 10 (the number of tracks on The Airborne Toxic Event). The feeling you end up with should tell you exactly how you’ll feel about The Airborne Toxic Event as a band. They’re sort of a perfection of mediocrity, the sort of thing that L.A. would mistake for greatness (Los Angeles is also home to The Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band that should just fucking stop… right… now.). They’ve even managed to trick a few reviewers here and there, but there is not a single track on this album that doesn’t make me wish I was listening to a band with a better singer (like The National) and/or a better lyricist (The Arcade Fire, The National, Okkervil River, and I could go on ad infinitum.) And repeated listens to The Airborne Toxic Event reveal something even more sinister – this music is emo, turned down and diluted by the Arcade Fire influence, but it’s emo none the less. I’m sure Mr. Jollet wants to tell you he’s inhabiting the characters of his songs or whatever, but take a lesson from Matt Berninger (does Mr. Berninger have the best voice in music right now? I think he might) – there’s no emo-quiver when Berninger sings “I leaned on the wall/ the wall leaned away”. His wariness is unfaked and unflinching, which is why he doesn’t need to scream very often (although, when he does, as on “Abel” and “Mr. November,” it’s pretty goddamn impressive).
Do you know what Mumblecore is? It’s this new movie genre (I guess) that likes to depict teenagers discussing somewhat deep things and bemoaning their lackluster love lives. It shoots for a superficial depth, the sort of thing that appeals to people who are blown away by books like The Four Agreements and who have read only one poet: Robert fucking Frost. The Airborne Toxic Event is like a mumblecore band (although they don’t mumble that much) – it’s a sort of safe poetry for people who can’t get far enough below the surface to crack open Boxer (best album of 2007) or read John Berryman. Every track on The Airborne Toxic Event screams “Trying too hard,” and its prepackaged pensiveness torpedoes any chance its (half-way) decent musicians have to propel the album in any really interesting direction. It’s the risk you run, naming your band after something awesome by an awesome writer: you’ve instantly asked yourself to be compared to that writer and when that writer is Don DeLillo, you’re bound to be found wanting.