Tuesday, May 11, 2004

CHOOSE ONE BADLY PUNFUL TITLE FOR THIS ENTRY: 1) TINNITUS I'M GONNA ROCK YOU TINNITUS; 2) NEW ADVANCES IN BURMATOLOGY; 3a) MILLER'S HIGH LIFE; 3b) THIS AIN'T MILLER LITE, BUD; 3c) MILLER'S GENUINE CR -- OW! STOP HITTING ME! OWWWWW!:

Roger Miller, Mission of Burma's guitarist/chief songwriter and bottle washer, begins a week-long online diary in Slate. Check it out.

Practically nothing else in the world (macro- or micro-) is going the way it should these days, which is what makes it so heartening to see so many of my personal musical heroes of yore returning to the fray after years out of commission and defying natural law by resolutely refusing to suck. It's not an isolated condition, either - band after band after band, mostly from the artier spasms of the punk movement, adjusting their guitar straps to accommodate their increased waist sizes and somehow spewing out stuff that stands proudly (when even unembarrassingly will do) next to their vintage material.

Burma, then.

The surprising reunions keep on coming - the surviving members of proto-post-punk legends Rocket From The Tombs reunited last year for a well-received tour and the studio album they never got a chance to record in the mid-seventies, Wire (on their third go-round) delivered two EPs and a full-length containing the fastest, most aggressive music they've ever produced, the famously contentious Pixies managed to bury the hatchet somewhere other than each others' foreheads for an open-ended return jaunt, and even the Buzzcocks (a decade into their second wind), the Mekons (who never broke up in the first place) and the Fall (who never did either, though their members keep falling out faster than their lead singer's teeth) surprised even the faithful with their strongest albums in ages over the last year or so. But it's Burma's unlikely rejuvenation that has me by far the most tickled, mostly because it seems almost as big a surprise to the Missionaries themselves as it does to their fans. But then, everything about them was unlikely from the word go - a dense, abrasive and challenging band with a deep pocket of tunes you could shake your fist and drunkenly bellow along with; a completely original sound coming out of a scene (Boston) where gimmicks and stylistic retreads are the order of the day, every day; a rock group without ego clashes, substance abuse problems of note (one of them drifted briefly into alcoholism, realized it, cleaned himself up and carried on) or the merest strain of arrogant posturing, neither rock star (no big surprise, as they never were) nor cult hero (which they most definitely were, though they evidently didn't even realize it until they read the chapter about them in Michael Azerrad's eighties-indie overview Our Band Could Be Your Life); a group that broke up simply to save their guitarist's ears (wisdom the Who have never known). Integrity? Unfeigned modesty? Basic regular-joe likability? MoB's got it in spades, hearts and clubs. There's just no way these mugs should be able to survive in the rock 'n' roll ecosystem, much less pick up where they left off over twenty years ago with faculties intact, and yet they've done it - a trio of fiftyish family/career men getting together for an impromptu jam session in the avant-garage and casually recapturing the vitality they had as kids.

Burma, now.

Their new album (and only their second official full-length studio release, as every reviewer is obliged to mention), ONoffON, is simply every bit as good as it should be - hearing that guitar sound again, that particular melodic bass, those intently pummeling drums, those tape loops and treatments that suck the whole thing up and spurt it back out in new and exciting combinations every time, even those songs ("Dirt," "Hunt Again" and "Playland") that cried out in demo form for a proper studio treatment that never came until now, all of this is purely and deeply satisfying. And while I almost never get personally involved with even the greatest of my song-slinging heroes (they'll only break your heart, kiddo), I feel something whipping up the stagnant leavings of my ashtray heart when I listen to this that can only be described as happiness. And not merely for myself, either, perhaps not even mainly so. I feel happy that Miller has found the fortitude and bravery to put his battered ears to the test again beneath those firing-range earpieces. I feel happy that Peter Prescott is getting a little well-deserved attention after so long playing in excellent combos (this one, Volcano Suns, Kustomized, the Peer Group) that hardly anybody west of Route 128 gave a shit about. I'm even happy for newbie Bob Weston (filling the sound-manipulating shoes of the absent Martin Swope) that he got the chance to muck about with the noise made by his heroes. But above all, I'm happy for Clint Conley - the guy who wrote the biggest "hits" in the Burmese catalogue ("Academy Fight Song," "That's When I Reach For My Revolver," "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate") surprised and saddened all three dozen of us by being the only MoBster to walk away from the life after the initial split, settling down to a life as a local-TV producer, seemingly never to write another indelible hook again. Now he's apparently making up for lost time bigtime, writing and performing for two bands (the other being Consonant, whose two albums play like a cleaner version of his signature sound and are highly recommended) while still keeping the day job. This is the best kind of success story - a return to form on their terms, with no particular aspirations beyond making music they can be proud of and an agreement to set it aside without regrets or recriminations the moment it ceases to be fun. May the Burmese flag continue to wave for exactly as long as it wants.

1 comment:

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