June 24, 2004

Mission of Burma "onoffon"

After all is said and done, 2004 might be remembered by indie-rock journalists as the Year the Old Folks Struck Back. Many bands who were on rock’s cutting edge in the ‘80s and early ‘90s are experiencing cultural and commercial resurgences that would give the average youth-obsessed trend-hopper pause. After being all but dismissed by the British music press as a ghost of its former self, the Fall have gained a new lease on life with a stunning new album and two consecutive (mostly) successful American tours. Sonic Youth have proven with Sonic Nurse that, even this far in the game, they can still make consecutive brilliant albums. Although the verdict’s still out on the Cure’s new Ross Robinson-produced album, the fact that their new single can sit comfortably on the radio next to Weezer is no small feat. Even if the Pixies only produce one mediocre new song (“Bam Thwok”) this year, their current reunion tour will ensure that they’ll be sitting on bank like Wells Fargo by year’s end. Out of all of the old bands currently enjoying newfound fortune, I think that Boston punk quartet Mission of Burma has the most bewildering story of them all. They broke up when I was two years old. after little more than an EP and an album, only to release new material 22 years later that not only picks up where they left off in 1983, but also improves upon their past material.

Yes, you read it right: I think that OnOffOn is BETTER than the records that they made during their first go-round. I understand how canonical and influential Signals, Calls and Marches and Vs. are, and I do enjoy listening to them. However, I believe that my youth puts me in the arguably privileged position of being able to evaluate Burma’s new material without much of the nostalgic baggage that people who were my age 20 years ago might attach to their earlier material. I only have to go by whether the record kicks my butt when it‘s on and stays in my head after it ends, and in my opinion, OnOffOn does a better job of doing both than either of their other two records. Burma’s new album does what all second albums are supposed to do: give us enough of a band’s patented sound to keep us satisfied, while adding enough development to keep us interested. Even after Burma’s breakup, all three of remaining original members have made music with their own bands over the last two decades, which at least partially explains the growth in musicianship and compositional skill displayed on OnOffOn.
Drummer Peter Prescott made a few of underrated albums of discordant punk in the ‘90s as the front man of Kustomized, and his contributions to the new album can be considered an extension of that work. For instance, “The Enthusiast” lives up to its title by doing for Burma’s sound what the “crunk” sub-genre did for hip-hop: turn every aspect of it into an exclamation point. Miller’s guitar, which ekes out unmusical screeches and fidgety harmonics, and Prescott’s stomping tom-toms and throaty shouting perfectly match the lyrics: “I can’t wait, but WHO CAN? I’m high as a kite on windless night!” Album closer “Absent Mind” also lives up to its title by starting out as a anthem about forgetfulness, stopping mid-song, and then slowly dissolving into a mess of goofy vocal harmonies, chipmunk tape manipulations, and unfocused jamming. Even when Prescott isn’t singing, his loose (and occasionally clumsy drumming) adds an element of danger to the songs, threatening to lose the beat but never quite doing so.

Bassist Clint Conley went 20 years without making any music at all, only to unexpectedly begin compensating for lost time in the last two years by releasing two excellent albums with his band Consonant. Like Prescott’s songs on OnOffOn, Conley’s contributions are strongly redolent of his work away from Burma, with “Hunt Again” coming across as a lovelorn and reflective rock song that just happens to be amped up by the presence of Prescott and Miller. “What We Really Were” even boasts lyrics by Holly Anderson, a frequent collaborator of Conley’s in Consonant. Conley also takes the album’s two biggest departures from Burma’s signature sound. “Nicotine Bomb“ is played in a jaunty, countrified tempo and is strangely interrupted by a synthesized horn section. “Prepared” is an honest-to-goodness love song, complete with a sappy chorus and string arrangements! I’m sure that “Prepared” and “Nicotine” might irk punk purists left and right, but so what? Not only are these songs catchy and well-written, but they also give the album a sonic variety that keeps it from sounding like a backward-looking time capsule.

However, Conley and Prescott are doing business as usual musically, therefore the REAL surprises on this record come from Roger Miller. Because his problems with tinnitus partially led to Burma’s demise in 1983, it didn’t come as much of a shock that much of his subsequent material (with Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and Alloy Orchestra) had very little to do with the noise and amplification of electric rock. Therefore, the consistent excellence of his contributions to OnOffOn is a minor miracle. Miller’s songs do what “emo” bands pretend to---explore the nuances of emotional drama within the context of the aggressive rock song---but without the clich├ęs and the melodrama.

Opener “The Setup” is sung from the point of view of someone bound by impulse. “My heart sets itself up,” Miller sings. “Why do I act this way? Where’s the question? I can’t just react.” Mistakes repeat themselves because the protagonist refuses to think before he acts, and Miller’s constant repetition of each phrase reflects this cycle. “Into the Fire” plumbs similar depths of confusion and destruction. “I don’t know why I do what I do,” he sings. “I can break a window…I can hurl myself into that fire!” “Max Ernst’s Dream” pays tribute to the surrealist artist by describing those moment when visual art becomes visceral, when “touching becomes the new seeing.” The birdsong tape loops (provided by producer Bob Weston, replacing absent fourth member Martin Swope) and droning guitars in the song’s bridge produce an equally transportive atmosphere. Then, there’s “Falling,” the album’s best and catchiest song, in which Miller spends the entirety singing about floating in mid-air. He sounds neither dippy nor despondent. We don’t know if he’s singing about bungee jumping or suicide, but we’ll be too busy swooning over the coed harmonies (provided by Tanya Donnelly of Belly/Throwing Muses fame) to care.

Equipped with firing-range headphones and armed with two decades’ worth of sonic experimentation, Miller spends all of OnOffOn completely wrecking shop on his six-string. Listen to the middle of “The Setup,” in which his slide guitar imitates Weston’s squealing tape loops until you can’t tell which is which. Listen to the open-tuned whammy-bar whines that Miller stuffs into every nook and cranny of “Wounded World.” Listen to the awesome string bends that Miller pulls off at the end of every line in the chorus of “Fever Moon.” Listen to the jazzy, almost harmolodic solo that he plays in the middle of “Into the Fire.” Once you’re done marveling at Miller’s guitar playing, listen to the passion in the background vocals. No matter who wrote what, the other two members are never far behind adding enthusiasm harmonies and shouts. Miller, Conley, and Prescott are genuinely excited to be in a band together again, and it shows through every second of OnOffOn.

This album is virtually unimpeachable. Not only have the members of Mission of Burma managed to outdo themselves, but they’ve also set a new standard for all of the younger bands under their influence to live up to. I don’t think I need to tell you how rare it is for a reunited band to do either of the two. OnOffOn sounds exactly like the kind of record Burma might have made in 1984 had they stayed together, but Burma was so far ahead of their time back then that the album is still at least a step or two ahead of most other rock records released so far this year. Just thinking about it makes my head want to explode…so I’m going to stop thinking about it and listen to “Falling” again instead. This album’s been out for almost two months. If you don’t own it already, what the hell is taking you so long??!?

--Sean Padilla

Label Website: http://www.matadorrecords.com

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