Agony Shorthand

Friday, May 14, 2004

I was as surprised as you were to learn that MISSION OF BURMA would be following up their life-affirming 2002 reunion tour with an actual studio record of all new material. Often these twenty-years-on reunion records elicit nothing so much as a big UH OH, but given Burma’s incredible live set that tour, which showed the band with their chops and their muscular reputation intact, I figured I’d judge the band as if they were starting from square one. And in a lot of ways, they are – “ONoffON” will inevitably suffer if folks insist on comparing it straight-up to “Vs.” or “Signals, Calls and Marches” – not because it’s a crappy reunion record (it isn’t, far from it), but because the context and follow-on US independent rock music history, some of it built upon Burma’s love of challenging, angular pop noise, has changed fairly dramatically. Thus I think the thing needs to be thrown in with its peers.

In so doing, there’s no doubt that this’ll stand up as one of the best records 2004 has to offer. “ONoffON” is full of screeching, tape-manipulated sound, all shoved and spindled into a very pleasing pop-based, structure-based rock and roll formula. The formula changes its visage on many occasions, and at times it’s like no Mission of Burma song or record you’ve ever heard before (particularly the galloping “Nicotine Bomb”, which is one of the best on here). This is still one of the loudest bands on the planet, but given their god-given ability to still write great lopey, raucous hook-filled TUNES, they never come off as such (except for in the live setting). Roger Miller’s guitar still sounds like a whooshing Concorde screaming out of JFK, and because it’s mixed into a bazillion different tracks on this record, the effect is pretty pummeling. His sound is “brighter” this time, perhaps because of the production, so anyone looking for the muddy murk of “Vs.” will have to keep looking. Of particular note are the Peter Prescott-yelped “Absent Mind”, which reminds one of a drunken 2am Volcano Suns encore (a good thing), and “Wounded World”, a track I didn’t cotton to at first when I downloaded it for free, but now think is a terrific veering-off into a different kind of post-punk sonic complexity than I’d expect from the band.

So what about the three we’ve heard before on those posthumous Taang records in the late 80s: “Dirt”, “Playland” and “Hunt Again”? These three tracks have been re-recorded for “ONoffON”, and two actually best the original studio versions 20-something years later…..only “Dirt” comes nowhere close to the jagged and raw angst of the original. But who’s complaining, right? The thing’s not flawless but the band is certainly hot and reinvigorated, and did something almost none of their 1979-83 peers could do, would do or have done: make a record worth buying & playing repeatedly without breaking a huge sweat, and then backing that up with a live set that blows doors off of anything I’ve seen in 2000-04. The dubious, skeptical and often hostile Agony Shorthand says check it out.