The Revolution Starts Now: The Mynabirds’ Generals

Posted June 4, 2012 in

When the hypnotic, big beats and power guitar riffs of the Mynabirds’ “Generals”—the first single and also, incidentally, the title track of Laura Burhenn’s sophomore effort—were introduced in February, I was immediately excited by the possibility of a promised new sound.  This rousing little number, with its big shout-out chorus and wallop of a beat, not only signifies a change in both sound and direction, but serves as a call to arms.  If only all pop music followed this formula; not only does it make you want to dance, it makes you think as well.  The single was followed by a short US tour, which stopped in Salt Lake City on March 8, and some of these whip-smart and catchy little ditties were first introduced to the public, and are now finally unveiled for the world at large.  What a lucky world!
What makes the sound of the single so striking is repeated throughout the album: a 1950s, pure rock n’ roll feel, complete with hip-shaking choruses, chiming keys and guitars, buoyantly staggered drums and glorious vocals and harmonies.  What sets it apart, however, is Burhenn’s plus grand triomphe, which has always been her songwriting and especially her poetic lyricism, found here in spades.  Bolstered by a world of dirty politicking and injustice, she channels anger that all of us have felt into a rally cry and does so with a rebel yell, but one that possesses a true poet’s heart.
Take for example, the relatively simple message that bookends the album’s opening and closing tracks: “I’d give it all for a legacy of love.”  On the ominous opening cut, “Karma Debt,” with lyrics like “The ebony and the ivory/Talked politics again/Then they sat and chewed the scenery/Til there was nothing left,” it arrives as reprieve, whereas on closer “Greatest Revenge,” they are near whispered in chant with as much a message of hope as they are a plea for the future.  The staccato snares of “Wolf Mother” match Burhenn’s intense vocal performance beat for beat, but then its bridge twists to a peppy lamentation because, first and foremost, she is a songwriter and has never sacrificed melody for message, but, rather, balances the two.
Speaking of which, Burhenn and her partner in crime—the über fantastic Richard Swift—seem to have harnessed the elemental strengths of her songwriting and honed it down to the basest of forms, which, in turn, and quite brilliantly I might add, makes these songs explode in the listener’s brain.  There is nary a wasted note or chorus, and only three tracks clock in over four minutes in length.  Take the fisson created by the above-mentioned title track: Its choruses literally detonate as the marching band drums rouse you to your feet, and it possesses, arguably, Burhenn’s most hummable melody of this present song cycle.  In other words, it is hard to shake its catchiness out of your brain.
Having said that, “Radiator Sister” comes incredibly close.  With divine, Wurlitzer-like keyboards, which later in the song are inspiredly let loose in near-freeform style, it keeps admonishing the listener that the politically fed-up titular character is ever near the point of erupting, warning, “You will get burned/So watch out.” The track simply screams “single,” with its underlying oohs and aahs only reinforcing the point.  It is followed by the catchy “Disaster,” which is anything but.  Co-penned by Swift, it features another great keyboard performance and an inspired background turn by him.  This serves as a perfect lead-in to what, to me, is the album’s most memorable track, and arguably its only true ballad: the devastating “Mightier Than The Sword.” 
Whispered, hushed “coos” and distant feedback herald Burhenn’s absolutely loveliest vocal here, where she sings/pleads directly to a suicidal victim of bullying.  “I know their razor blade names/Cut into your arms/And opened your veins,” she consoles them, acknowledging that, too late, “It’s a fresh assault when the news comes on/Another one gone today.”  Its ultimate redemptive qualities are reaffirmed by one of the prettiest bridges she’s ever created that propels it past the tragedy and grief of its heavy subject matter.  Reverential, thought provoking and quietly powerful, this was a highlight during their Salt Lake show, and is destined to be one of her most striking compositions ever, if not on this tragic subject as a whole. It really is that forceful.
The irrepressible marriage of drums, keys and harmonizing vocals reunite for a literal song triptych. “Body Of Work,” is a powerfully imagined tune inspired and featuring the great Sartre quote, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” War and soldier imagery also feature prominently in the sing-along hooks of “Disarm,” which rhetorically asks “What are we fighting for?”  These ideas and more culminate in the majestic beauty found in “Buffalo Flower,” which ends with the hopeful notion of being able to change the world by changing oneself.  This is repeated in the charmingly ornate closer, “Greatest Revenge,” which is highlighted by a sharp wit, with Burhenn worrying about today’s generation: “I feel for all their progeny/How will they know what freedom means?” It features a ’50s style doo wop song structure and even visits a “Sea Of Love”-like refrain before that repeated mantra, “I’d give it all for a legacy of love,” gives its final grand statement. 
Of course, there were signs of a change in both sound and lyrical direction on 2010’s stand-alone holiday charmer, “All I Want Is Truth (For Christmas)” and its thought-provoking message about mass consumerism against an upbeat, slightly countrified melody.  On Generals, those notions are fully explored and Swift’s greatest contribution is how seamlessly he helps Burhenn’s music reach its full potential.  There is an admirable economy to the parring down of Burhenn’s songs, and it is unbelievable at times that it is really just the two of them producing the big sounds blaring out of the speakers, especially those drums.  While there isn’t a complete 360-degree shift between Generals and their earlier, magnificent collaboration that was What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood, there is a notable change in style and theme.  Above all, Burhenn remains a great poet and dreamer, and appears to literally be a new Revolutionist, which incidentally is the name of a side photo project she produced in conjunction with the new album, to specifically highlight women making a difference in the regular world.
Also of special note is the “Generals” single’s B-side, “Fallen Doves.”  Featuring Burhenn and a pump organ, its simple lament nearly belies its sharp rhetoric.  Originally released on limited 7” vinyl for Record Store Day 2012, it is worth pursuing digitally.
Generals will be released on CD, LP and digitally on Tuesday, June 5 via Saddle Creek. The Mynabirds return to Salt Lake City to play Kilby Court on Wednesday, August 8.