Friday, May 02, 2008

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: DANG ME, I LOVE MISSION OF BURMA!

There are lots of reasons people get into certain bands or musicians. Most folks go for whatever they hear on the radio 17 times a day. A cousin of mine once postulated that most people like whatever they liked in high school and don’t progress much from there.

There are also reasons people don’t get into certain bands or musicians. Lots of people, maybe the majority, aren’t interested in music they don’t hear 17 times a day on the radio and that doesn’t sound like the stuff they liked in high school.

But I’ve got an even stupider reason for avoiding a particular band: the name of the singer.

The band in question is Mission of Burma, a “post-punk” group from Boston that first arose in the early 1980s and whose early work has recently been reissued on Matador Records. MOB was a guitar-dominated band whose raging attack was akin to that of Hüsker Dü and even Sonic Youth — at least the latter’s more melodic tunes. It was an unfettered, dare I say “grungy,” sound played with wild urgency.

But I chose to ignore MOB the first time around because the band’s guitarist and lead singer is a guy who, through no fault of his own, was born with the name Roger Miller.

Due to my fierce loyalty to the King of the Road, (who was living in Santa Fe during those years) I just couldn’t bring myself to give a do wacka do about some weird little band where the singer didn’t even have the decency to use his middle name or even middle initial to distinguish himself from the hillbilly hipster from Eric, Oklahoma. I’d read some critic raving about Mission of Burma and “Roger Miller,” and I’d think, “This snot-nosed upstart probably never even heard ‘Engine Engine Number 9’ or ‘Dang Me,’ much less ‘One Dyin’ and a Buryin’ ’ or ‘Lou’s Got the Flu’.”

I told you it was a stupid reason. But I’m not kidding.
The real Roger Miller, at home in Tesuque, 1980 Photo by Pam Mills
Years later I became a major fan of a band called The Afghan Whigs (who, it could be argued, owed a sonic debt to Mission of Burma.) I’m lucky that it was the drummer, not the singer, who was named “Steve Earle.”

By the mid ‘80s, Mission of Burma had broken up and I didn’t give them much thought. The band never was that big out here in New Mexico, so I never really heard them on the radio and none of my friends were beating me over the head telling me what I’d been missing.

So I never really sat down and listened to MOB until 2004, when I got a review copy of OnOffOn, the group’s “comeback” album (featuring three of the four original members — Mr. Miller, bassist/singer Clint Conley, and drummer Peter Prescott — and newcomer Bob Weston).

It was MOB’s first release in about 20 years. Normally such products tend to be rather pitiful, but this one was excellent. And two years later, the band’s follow-up, The Obliterati, was even better.

So I was happy when Matador decided to rerelease three albums’ worth of early-’80s MOB in March. Under the umbrella title Mission of Burma: The Definitive Editions, the three CDs are Signals, Calls, and Marches, which includes all the songs from the original EP of the same name plus other recordings; Vs., which, along with some bonus tracks, contains the group’s only proper studio album until OnOffOn; and The Horrible Truth About Burma, a remastered version of a live album originally released in 1985.

In addition, each disc comes with a bonus DVD of live MOB shows from those golden years. Although these videos aren’t going to win any cinematography awards, they do capture some of the band’s raw energy. The Signals DVD includes performances from as early as 1979, when some of the Burmese could almost pass for high-school kids. The other two DVDs consist of 1983 performances. The band members look more mature and sound slightly more refined, but their power is still there. (Miller, whose hearing problems would lead to the group’s 1983 breakup, is seen wearing headphones onstage.)

Signals, Calls, and Marches includes two of the band’s greatest songs: their first single, “Academy Fight Song,” which reminds me a little bit of R.E.M.’s maiden single “Radio Free Europe,” though “Academy” is rougher; and “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” which sounds as desperate as the title implies.

Vs. starts out with some fuzzy, high-reverb guitar notes that almost suggest the record is going to be an Electric Prunes tribute album. There aren’t any vocals, except for a couple of screams, until two minutes into the three-minute opening song. Despite some titles like “Fun World” and “Laugh the World Away,” this can hardly be called a lighthearted album. Some of the rhythms are downright brutal, and guitarist Miller rides the feedback like a rodeo star.

Highlights on Vs. include “The Ballad of Johnny Burma,” the closest thing to a theme song MOB ever had; the frantic “Mica”; and the slow-grooving “Einstein’s Day.”

The live Horrible Truth is just a real treat. Surprisingly, it contains few repeats of songs from previous recordings — “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” from Signals and “Trem Two,” “Learn How,” and the brontosaurus stomp “Weatherbox” from Vs. being exceptions. There’s an early take on “Dirt,” which nearly 20 years later would turn up on OnOffOn. The live album also includes some innovative covers of songs like The Stooges’ “1970” and Pere Ubu’s “Heart of Darkness,” which, in MOB’s hands, becomes a nearly nine-minute odyssey.

While it’s great to see the early Mission of Burma works available again, I’m hoping the band releases a new album in the not-too-distant future. I might have missed them the first time around, but they still sound fine on the rebound.

Mission of Radio: You can hear a big chunk of Mission of Burma on Terrell’s Sound World, free-form weirdo radio on KSFR-FM 101.1. The show starts at 10 p.m. on Sunday (the MOB set will happen shortly after 11 p.m.). And I’ll play some music by that other Roger Miller (and maybe even some Steve Earle) on The Santa Fe Opry, country music as the good Lord intended, same time, same channel, on Friday.

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