Graded on a Curve: Mission of Burma, Unsound

Mission of Burma have just released Unsound, their fourth record since reforming in 2002, and it continues the odds defying level of quality that marks them as the indie-rock reunion against which all others will be compared. The secret seems to be an unusually high personal standard combined with a desire to not take it all too seriously. That and excellent songs, of course.

I’m just going to come right out and say it; Mission of Burma’s second incarnation is the more impressive of their existence’s two segments, and as strong as the reunited original lineup of fellow Massachusetts residents Dinosaur Jr. has been (both on record and in the club), it still takes a backseat to Burma’s rekindled achievement.

Obviously many, even partisans of the band’s current activities, will balk at this assessment, mainly because their Mk I discography, while the leanest oeuvre of all the life-changing ’80s American underground proto-indie bands, is very persuasively the most accomplished pound-for-pound; a seven inch, an EP, an LP and a live album, and all of them stone classics.

Plus, in the context of first-wave hardcore’s last-stand and subsequent fallout, Burma’s expansive sound and manner of conduct served as a real guiding light for those looking for an alternative to the restrictions of the Loud Fast Rules. In this regard they shared the stage with Hüsker Dü, but the main difference between the two entities was Burma’s music being significantly more cerebral in execution, a reality that helped to keep the blatant copyists at a minimum and the late ‘80s backlash at bay.

Backlash? Yeah, by 1988 actually finding copies of Mission of Burma’s Ace of Hearts releases was a total chore, so the Rykodisc label undertook a stuffed to the gills, eighty-plus minute (the first of its kind) self-titled compact disc that served as the actual introduction for many listeners (such as yours truly) to an already hallowed group.

The problem many older, undeniably grumpy fanzine types had with this once-posthumous flowering was less a musical beef than a case of bitterness (some might say sour grapes) over the perception of many peers and a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies (such as yours truly) leaping onto a bandwagon that five years prior held a surplus of elbow room.

Because of all those ‘80s u-ground entities, let’s call them the Our Band Could Be Your Life bands, Burma was the least appreciated while extant, a fact that’s assisted in making that rather amazing output of their first phase (that’s ’79 to ’83) register as even more remarkable in retrospect. Indeed, listening repeatedly to the pure manna of that Rykodisc CD really drove home that a whole mess of ears missed sailing on a ridiculously beautiful boat.

But in reality Mission of Burma wasn’t ignored, at least not on their home turf, where they were played on both college and commercial FM radio. They were simply misapprehend by many, taken for granted by others, and perceived as too mature by the stubble-domed youth of Boston’s regenerative punk scene. Ahead of the curve and belatedly adored; it all adds up to a situation called Legendary Status.

And any band of that distinction that reconvenes with the intention of releasing new music courts serious disaster. But even if that circumstance is successfully dodged, it’s still a near cinch that no matter how positive a reaction said group’s fresh output receives it will still take a backseat to the old stuff.

Not that many of these bands have the guts to step forth with new material after being anointed with the distinction of cornerstone act, and understandably so, since the fear of public failure is simply too great. It’s much safer to just take the old stuff on tour for the big money grab ala The Pixies or Pavement.

But Burma’s first reunion shows in ’02 and the release of ONoffON two years later were openly about unfinished business; their breakup wasn’t due to intra-band conflict or displeasure with their level of success after all, it was related directly to Roger Miller going deaf.

That ugly affliction called Tinnitus brought them to an abrupt halt. And it was Miller’s rehabbed ears and a general desire for a more appropriate sense of closure, particularly after getting enshrined in the indie-rock pantheon that found Burma back together again. And it all went so well that guitarist Miller, bassist Clint Conley and drummer Peter Prescott, with Shellac’s Bob Weston replacing Martin Swope as tape-looper/soundman, have continued to release records with a refreshing and rather rare general attitude, electing to challenge each other with the task of creating a consistently evolving Mk II discography.

On the face of it, this mindset might seem the least any band charging cash on the barrelhead for records or live shows should muster, but the sad temperament behind so many releases old and new falls much closer to the motto “Hey, it beats working for a living.” Unsound, Mission of Burma’s third full-length since reignition, continues their improbable trajectory of quality by both refusing to settle for formula and by persisting in sidestepping the generally impossible expectations of Legendary Status.

To wit, Burma has smartly avoided the impulse to top the elevated standing of their past recordings. Instead, from ‘06’s The Obliterati to this latest release, the stated desire has been to simply make strong, satisfying records from within the general parameters of the Mission of Burma sound, a point of attack that provides far more leeway than expected. The only standard the band has taken to heart is its own; avoid going through the motions.

Much of the vitality in Burma’s second life rests upon the unabashed heaviness of their sound. While ‘82’s Vs. and especially the ’85 live LP The Horrible Truth About Burma indicated the level of raucousness the band was capable of delivering, studio material like ‘80’s “Academy Fight Song” 7-inch and the following year’s Signals, Calls and Marches EP deliberately put the Art in front of the Rock, and added a hyphen for good measure.

However, the band’s three Matador releases and Unsound, their first for UK label Fire, bring forth the power without any hesitation, sounding much closer to the band’s live sound. And this has been achieved without sacrificing those highly defining “art-rock” traits.

In fact, “Dust Devil,” Unsound’s two minute opener, combines these attributes as strongly as anything they’ve released in the 21st Century, blending moments of tough angularity with suitably tight rhythmic propulsion and throwing in their smart and distinctive vocal weave.

But there are surprises in store, such as guitarist Miller’s use of effects pedal on “Semi-Pseudo-Sort-Of Plan.” Specifically, it greatly emphasizes the psyche/Detroit angle that’s always bubbled under the surface in Burma’s story, for not only did Miller originally hail from Ann Arbor MI (home of The Stooges, dontcha know) but Sproton Layer, his high school band with younger bros Ben and Larry, kicked up some impressive psychedelic dust via some recordings circa 1970.

Those tapes were later issued by the New Alliance label twenty-two years later under the title With Magnetic Fields Disrupted, and the record not only shed valuable light upon Miller’s formative years but also helped to explain why Burma came off so levelheaded and well focused in a sea of youngsters exemplifying the opposite.

But outside of Horrible Truth’s smoking cover of The Stooges’ “1970” and their live take of Barrett-era Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine,” Burma has generally tended toward cultivating their punk (or post-punk, if you prefer) sensibility, as their renditions of Pere Ubu, The Dils, and The Wipers testify.

And on Unsound’s “Sectionals in Mourning,” “This is Hi-Fi,” and “Second Television,” the band continue mining that art-punk reserve with prime results. But “Part the Sea” works up an anthemic, fist pumping head of steam markedly different than anything I’ve heard from Burma before, and “Fell–>H2O” opens and closes with a tidy yet endearingly odd little psyche-funk guitar progression that had me picturing a dusted Robbie Krieger riffing in praise of the peace frog. Like, heavy man.

Due to the inclusion of trumpet the cuts “ADD in Unison” and “What They Tell Me” will bring the highest level of attention to Burma’s stated desire to keep it fresh through mixing up and messing with the program. But the appearance of Bob Weston’s tasty horn licks is far from the only striking departure on “ADD in Unison,” for Miller’s writing on the track’s first half pushes the same lovely buttons as Mike Watt’s work of recent vintage. And any Pedro/Beantown overlap is a mighty fine development to these ears, as is Weston’s spray of loosey-goosey valve-splatter on “What They Tell Me;”did somebody say art-punk?

To close, Unsound is a very well assembled record. Beginning with the short blast of “Dust Devil,” it quickly segues into the disc’s heartiest, lengthier numbers before wrapping up with a galvanizing three-punch combo of effective brevity; “7’s,” “What They Tell Me,” and the ripping denouement that is “Opener,” a near instrumental save for the phrase repeated emphatically at track’s end, the last sound’s heard from this superb album: “Forget what you know.”

Picking the finest full length Mission of Burma album is a very easy task, for Vs. is essentially a perfect record, one of the ‘80s Ten Best in this writer’s estimation. To decide upon the band’s second best is an endeavor far more difficult, and Unsound has happily complicated the effort even more.

Graded on a Curve: A

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