Years hence, Atomic Tom may remember playing a nightclub in Scottsdale, Arizona, on Grammy night as one of the myriad indignities that must be endured on the way to a longer-term music career.
For surviving it with panache, I give them the heart over there to the left. It’s not precisely my heart, as I haven’t yet earned my threatened donut pan; but it’s a pleasingly sweet, puffy, and cream-filled heart, and we all know that America runs on Dunkin’ (though early-career bands tend to roll on Taco Bell).
Having sworn I was going to devote my concert dollar to bands I already listen to — many of which were scheduled to play Phoenix in the last week of January and the first week of February — I came down with flu and missed all of them. So I’m back to checking out bands because they sound interesting. Atomic Tom (listen) got my attention by a combination of peculiar sense of humor and technological creativity. More on both below.
Atomic Tom is from Brooklyn, so we know it’s hip. Not, perhaps, as hip as if the band were from Austin — but it’s playing SXSW just days hence, so all is not lost. We have Luke White on vocals, with the odd bit of guitar and keyboard; Eric Espiritu on guitar; Philip Galitzine on bass; and Tobias Smith on shiny cerulean drums. White’s outfit was almost identical to mine, except that the neckline of his knit top was more flattering and my jacket was cuter. I’m not sure this constitutes a bond between us, though clearly we could have a high old time at H&M.
Much of my bonding was with the couple who was standing next to me in the vast loneliness of the grown-up side of the bar. We compared notes on venues. It’s not impossible that I may see them again at a show in May. The Monty Python-declaiming couple ahead of me in the admission line may turn up again in my world sooner, judging from their concert-going plans. It was a very small gathering of die-hard concert-goers, the more so because the local alt-rock radio station had held onto the band long past the scheduled start time of the show, so casual attendees had wandered off to get drunk elsewhere long before the doors opened.
This has to be tough on a band: it’s hard to get good energy in a half-empty venue. Atomic Tom zoomed right in and put on a super-energetic show. White is really, really, really into his performances. He bounces off — well, not the walls, but everything bounceable. He’s not much of a banterer; though with some bands, I’m not sure if this is deliberate or if it’s because the scheduled set time is so short that one daren’t waste a minute on chatter.
In the almost-24 hours since, I’ve been trying to put a finger on what Atomic Tom vaguely reminds me of, not in a derivative way, but in a “development of this musical direction” way. Echo and the Bunnymen! Now, if the band members ever read this, they’re probably responding: “Bunnymen? We’re not remotely rabbit-like! What’s this with Bunnymen?” What’s itching at the back of my mind, though, is post-punk, particularly in its later stages where it collided with 1980s electronica, plus early 1990s alt-rock (think R.E.M.) before Seattle grunge steamrollered the entire genre.
It’s partly White’s voice, which has that deep, earnest, echoing quality that I associate with that time and style. (Once again, Martini Ranch’s acoustics proved problematic: near the stage, vocals were getting lost in the drums, and it wasn’t because White’s shy about expressing himself.)
It’s also that although the music — especially live — has many of the hallmarks of moderately igneous rock, it’s also extremely danceable. At one point about halfway through the set, White said straight-out that he wanted to dance to a song… and it turned out to be slinky little number. I think it was this song (inevitably the Youtube isn’t from my show).
At the beginning, I’m thinking Joy Division, but then the screaming guitars kick in, and this is much more guitar-driven rock than Joy Division’s actual direct descendants. (Adding to my confusion is that the live show is more hard-rock than the sound mix on the album, which I now own.)
As is so often the case, I’m at a loss for a proper setlist because I had no idea what I was hearing until I heard it. Here’s another song where I feel as if alternate musical universes diverged around 1991. In this one, R.E.M., Echo and the Aforementioned Bunnymen, and a couple dudes with guitars whose Minneapolis garage band I liked shaped history — and Nirvana didn’t. (Deep dark secret: I liked Pearl Jam better than Nirvana.) Dinosaur Jr. might have been invited to the party. Or maybe not. Once again, this has a strong guitar line but a dance beat.
Another whiff of the late 1980s is the enigmatic lyrics. I’m a sucker for enigmatic imagery.
So… sit yourself beside me in my favorite spot at the stage-side corner of the bar at Martini Ranch, three feet from the stage, comfortable on a bar stool, vodka cocktail ready to hand, musing on how and whether Atomic Tom is logically the rock movement that should have grown out of 1980s synthpop. Feel free to share a few opinions. Just… pause as White announces the second-to-last song.
Set your drink down.
Seriously. Set it down and pay attention.
For an upcoming movie, Atomic Tom was asked to cover a Human League song. Oh yes.
It’s better live, too. And this gives us the essence of what’s going on here: the underlying structure is synthpop, but the form is screaming guitars and the tone is urgent. I wouldn’t ordinarily take cover choice that seriously as a style indicator — plenty of bands adapt covers in wild and woolly ways — but this cover sounds so normal in relation to the original, as if it’s largely an adaptation to how our ears have changed.
Please help me up — I fell off my bar stool with delight. Ouch.
The final song is the band’s big hit, on which White did a credible job of getting the crowd to sing along in two-part harmony (drinkers on one part, under-21s on the other).
So let’s wrap up with the version that went viral: the band played the song on the New York subway on their iPhones. Sense of humor + technology.