Two years ago, Mission of Burma staged what was arguably the greatest comeback that indie-rock has ever seen with ONoffON, their first album of original material in 22 years. Although the album often equalled the band's early 1980s work, it had its share of detractors, most of whom used the fact that some of its songs (“Hunt Again,” “Dirt,” “Playland”) were holdovers from the band's first go-round against them. Nevermind that the other 12 songs were great, or that the band's live shows were just as intense as they ever were: haters love to nitpick, and so they did. This year's follow-up The Obliterati had a much shorter gestation period than its predecessor, and the quality of the music contained therein should silence the haters once and for all.
Seriously: this album is so good that when I heard them play opening track “2wice” live last year, I thought it was one of their older songs that I hadn't studied their catalog thoroughly enough to memorize. All of the elements of Burma's titanic, physical sound --- the hiss and throb of Peter Prescott's drums, the harsh jangle of Roger Miller's guitar and Clint Conley's meaty, wandering bass lines --- are firmly in place from the song's first few seconds. However, “2wice” goes above and beyond the call of duty with a soaring chorus, delivered in falsetto harmony, that spotlights something about the band that most listeners will neither expect nor believe. These guys are making honest-to-goodness pop songs, albeit pop songs played with brute force and at deafening volume. One of the reasons why The Obliterati is even better than ONoffON is that, with the exception of the ironically titled instrumental “The Mute Speaks Out,” every song leaves at least one hook in your head before ending.
Unlike its predecessor, The Obliterati has a louder and occasionally sloppier sound that more accurately portrays the band's live show. Even the squelchy tape loops sound as if producer Bob Weston is operating his reels in the same room as the other three, as opposed to tacking the loops onto the backing tracks after the fact. The band's instrumental interplay is as fierce as ever. On “Spider's Web,” they create a rollicking three-minute song out of a mere two notes, during which Miller wrecks shop with just a slide and a distortion pedal. The band interrupts “Let Yourself Go,” “Birthday” and “Nancy Reagan's Head” with fearsome volleys of noise that would make Sonic Youth cock their eyebrows. Tasteful employment of cello and viola adds a melancholy feeling to “13,” the closest that the album comes to having a ballad, and an extra gallop to the punk scorcher “Period.” There are many moments on this album when the members shout at each other off-mike, clearly as excited about playing the music as I am about listening to it.
Last but not least, the lyrics are funnier and smarter than they've ever been. On “Spider's Web,” Miller brags about “eating dinner on Matador's dime.” On “Donna Sumeria,” he pays tribute to another music legend from his hometown of Boston by borrowing the rhythms and lyrics from some of her most well-known songs. Ever the rabble-rouser, Prescott uses the aptly named “Let Yourself Go” to chastise uptight people, and “Period” to celebrate humanity's inevitable end. “The absolute, the finite, the immovable --- they don't care what you have to say!,” he hollers in his brusque, stentorian voice. Not to be outdone, Clint Conley contributes his own share of ditties, most of which seem to be about relationships on the fritz. “Man in Decline” examines a couple separated by distance of every kind. On “Is This Where?,” he completely gives up: “Let's hang up,” he sings, “on what we're not and what we'll never be.” He changes tack on album closer “Nancy Reagan's Head,” which bemoans his counterculture's failure to overthrow the Establishment: “Roxy Music came to save the world,” he sings, “and all I got was this lousy T-shirt!”
As Conley is clearly aware, music alone can't change the world. However, The Obliterati is an album galvanizing enough to serve as a fitting soundtrack to the events that DO change the world. If any other rock band makes a better album this year, chances are they're influenced by Mission of Burma anyway!
Artist Website: www.missionofburma.com
Label Website: www.matadorrecords.com