In 1980, Boston's Mission of Burma released the "Academy Fight Song/Max Ernst" 7-inch. Not only was this one of the finest American post-punk singles, it was also hugely influential on the burgeoning hardcore scene developing across the US underground. Strange, because the song features acoustic guitars, jazzy bass chords, tape loops of feedback and subtle sonic manipulation worthy of the Beatles. Not strange, because it also represents some of the earliest efforts in the underground to use noise as a tool, rather than to just be noisy.
During their brief career (1980-82), Burma reached into the future some three or four years and revealed production techniques that would influence the sonic flowering of hardcore -- from Husker Du and Sonic Youth to the Pixies, Nirvana and "Alternative" rock. The next 10 years happened here first.
Cut to two decades later. Burma's ideas have been around, used, built upon, destroyed, refashioned and revered. Burma's grown old, but, like any good punk, not necessarily wise. So, they release ONOFFON. Not as bad as the Blondie or Sex Pistol reunions ... in fact, it's pretty damn good. It's just nothing shocking.
Clint Conley (bass) has got little to compare to "Academy" or "That's When I Reach for My Revolver," but he's got some stuff left. Martin Swope is gone, replaced by the able Bob Weston (Shellac) on tapes, but he's missed: his work on Vs. (Burma's only full length) should make him immortal. Roger Miller (guitar) and Peter Prescott (drums) come out okay with some great tunes. They've moved closer to hardcore circa 1984 than Burma ever had a chance to during their career, taking back something they already gave.
Miller's "The Setup" is classic Burma, with backward guitar loops and strummed bass, short statements, and noise breakdowns. Prescott's "The Enthusiast" is a wonder. Conley acquits himself with "What We Really Are" and the beautiful "Prepared." Weston is a fine producer and tape-man, in that he makes Burma sound like Burma.
Mission of Burma was always about sound first, song second. Same Burma, same mission, different times, that's all. Years too early, years too late.
Track to burn: "The Setup"
Grade: B--Jesse Steichen
A Grand Don't Come For Free
Mike Skinner -- street name, The Streets -- gained gobs of acclaim for his debut full-length, Original Pirate Material, a mix of Anglo Garage and American hip-hop phrasing that (at least until the stateside release of Dizzee Rascal's Boy in Da Corner) sounded like the first brave step forward hip-hop had taken in years.
On A Grand Don't Come For Free, Skinner gives us a concept album about a day in his life, a sort of geezer Bloomsday in which he loses a grand, flirts with a girl he fancies, forgets to call his mom, bets on "football," and drinks many cans of Tennents. His polite palare -- a sort of sing-song style full of up-to-the-minute Brit slang but yet exceedingly mannered -- is a perfect match for the detail-driven narrative, as in this "scene" at a local pub: "She had her fingers 'round her hair, playin'/I saw on the telly that's a good indication/Stood up to buy the next drink though, "Nay"/Suppose that's just our girl's way/I'm tryin to think what else I could say/Peelin' the label off, spinnin' the ashtray."
And that, in the end, is what makes Skinner special. He walks the same streets as the rest of us, and -- unlike most of his overseas contemporaries -- knows that they're hardly ever paved in gold.
Track to Burn: "Fit But You Know It"
Grade: A---Timothy C. Davis
Howling...It Grows and Grows!!!
Talk about a grunge hot flash. Or is it flashback? This record opens those wistful gates from the recesses of memory when Sub Pop used to have the Singles Club, where members would receive righteous slabs of 45 records for their pre-paid subscriptions. The Catheters sound as if culled from the early days when Mudhoney and Fastbacks readjusted young brain cells on a regular basis and Jack Endino was the mack daddy knob-twister who produced all the cool punk bands. The Catheters are a rock band from Seattle, also home of the aging yet still relevant Sub Pop. The quartet dig up old-school bones but take the momentum further with, gasp, guitar solos -- albeit short ones. Howling... is the band's third full-length record. Together since 1995, The Catheters have soaked in the "classic" Seattle climes but don't drag their feet and have a sense of urgency creating rock music sharpened by punk ethos. "Easy Life" is reminiscent of Iggy and the Stooges. The 4:14 epic "Red Flags to White" and "Reaction" are laced with just enough psychedelic tabs to give the band an original click. Blowhards will complain that Sub Pop is sliding back. In this case that's not a bad thing.
Track to burn: "No Natural Law"
Grade: B---Samir Shukla