The Tuesday Review: The Airborne Toxic Event's Self-Titled Debut

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Less than eight months ago, The Airborne Toxic Event was exploding in an unreal way. Unsigned, unrecorded and unpromoted, the band drew nearly 1,000 people to a 400-person occupancy venue and was placed on regular rotation over the LA airwaves with nothing but an unmastered mp3.

The story of the band’s formation is fascinating and tragic in and of itself: in March 2006, fiction writer Mikel Jollett experienced the worst week of his life. While working on his novel, he learned that his mother was diagnosed with cancer, ended a long-term relationship, and was himself diagnosed with genetic autoimmune disease that brought on alopecia areata (hair loss) and vitiligo (skin pigment loss).

In the following month, he kicked a two-pack-a-day smoking habit cold turkey and, though he continued to work on the novel, eventually realized he was writing music. But the connection to literature didn’t disappear by any means; the band takes its name from postmodern author Don DeLillo’s novel “White Noise,” where protagonist Jack Gladney is forced to confront his own death after being exposed to a chemical explosion dubbed an “airborne toxic event.”

Like my colleague Kevin Capp wrote just yesterday about the literary appetites of the new generation of American bands, Jollett’s writing is the true hallmark of the album. It’s easy to get caught up in danceable melodies, but stepping back to fully comprehend the lyrics is a true poetic experience. It’s beautiful, and painful, and terrifyingly real.

Even the songs themselves have a seemingly literary quality. Though the songs are usually driven by Steven Chen’s steady guitar and Daren Taylor’s meticulous drumming — drawing comparisons to Franz Ferdinand and Modest Mouse —there’s trappings of a more whimsical, synth-and-viola-driven atmosphere that appear in opening track “Wishing Well” and heartbreaking single “Sometime Around Midnight.”

Though the album is short, clocking in at just over 37 minutes between the 10 tracks, but there’s more talent in its entirety than could be hoped for in a disc three times its length. And guess what? They have a stop scheduled for Endfest, Sept. 13 at Marymoor Park. I suggest you go.

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