MISSION OF BURMA The Obliterati (Matador)
Most frequently namedropped in the context of their authorship of Thats When I Reach For My Revolver, later covered by both Moby and Graham Coxon, in their original 1980s incarnation Mission Of Burma released one solitary studio album before guitarist Roger Millers tinnitus forced their dissolution. Theyre now two albums into one arguably the most artistically successful reformation since the late, great Go-Betweens reconvened.
Mission Of Burma play angry music with power, poise and purpose. Blunt, flattened and ferocious, the craggy likes of 2wice and Spiders Web display both attack and depth. The imperious Donna Sumeria, as might be expected from its title, teases the listener with the briefest introductory sliver of Moroder-esque Eurodisco, later cribbing blatantly from I Feel Love. On the other hand, with its sleazy opening rallying call of Yeah!, Let Yourself Go could be Queens Of The Stone Age indulging their tricksier, artier tendencies. Good, Not Great sounds like a fuzzier, photocopied version of The Jesus And Mary Chain circa Psychocandy fronted by Grant Hart on vocals. The album arguably reaches its zenith with the wickedly witty closer, Nancy Reagans Head, which, alongside the consideration of the titular object, delights in lines such as Roxy Music came to save the world/And all I got was this lousy t-shirt.
Burma encourages shuffle play, claim the sleevenotes, and its no idle boast. My vinyl pressing arrived with a special code-toting coupon that entitled me to a free MP3 download of the album in its entirety, a delightful and generous gesture that other American indie labels such as Touch And Go and Merge have also begun offering.
MISSION OF BURMA Signals, Calls & Marches (Matador)
Matador’s Definitive Editions of Mission Of Burma’s early catalogue have to be some of the most caring, sharing reissues I’ve ever bought into. Analogue mastered to 180 gram premium vinyl (pressed by RTI, one of America’s finer vinyl manufacturers), both “Signals, Calls & Marches” (a 1981 EP) and “Vs.” (a 1982 LP) arrive with a disc of extra material, a DVD of contemporaneous live performances, a big booklet filled with recollections and memorabilia, chunky-beyond-the-call-of-duty packaging and a voucher proffering a free download of the entire album.
“Signals, Calls & Marches” opens with “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver”, perhaps the band’s most famous song by virtue of its Moby, Catherine Wheel and Graham Coxon covers. It matches up to the weight of expectation that precedes it, the band piling into it like a cross between Gang Of Four and Hüsker Dü, a minor classic of angry, melodic post-punk. There’s better here, though: instrumental “All World Cowboy Romance” is a delight, all controlled rage and lush, shifting textures, and although the band have decried their debut single “Academy Fight Song” for its production excesses, heard distanced from any discussion of punk rock aesthetics it’s perhaps their most naggingly addictive moment. In an era when The Jam’s “Start!” topped the UK chart it should’ve made the Burma planet-straddlingly famous, but perhaps such a happening was beyond the scope of a tiny Boston indie label.
It’s a doff of the cap to those foresighted souls who documented the Burma shows excerpted on the accompanying DVD. Crudely shot and abruptly edited they may be, but they capture the excitement of a young band testing their material in tiny, sweaty clubs in front of enthusiastic audiences. The highlight of this half-hour for me is a primitive, kinetic cover of The Doors’ “Break On Through”, thoroughly Burma-ised, complete with some enthusiastically expressive dancing in the crowd.
"Vs.”, Mission Of Burma’s debut album proper, has a more expansive, experimental sound. I’d hesitate to call it produced, that being a term of which the band themselves would’ve been suspicious, but here it’s not just about the songs: the textures matter too. It can be heard in “Secrets”’ layered percussion and the wriggling, effects-treated guitar line that coils and snakes itself into “Trem Two”. The elaborate, layered harmonies of “Weatherbox” and “Einstein’s Day” could be something off a Queen album, almost. Then again, “The Ballad Of Johnny Burma” is none of these things, and “Learn How” celebrates their DIY roots. Similarly, the piercing scream that closes “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate” (a forever, flashier relative of “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver”) was emitted by a band member on noticing that the tape was about to run out.
The bonus disc contains four contemporaneous tracks that first surfaced on Rykodisc’s 1997 reissue of “Vs.”, including the short, sharp, shocking punk bolero “OK/No Way”. Of more interest is the “Live At The Bradford Hotel” DVD, which contains the afternoon performance from the day of the original band’s last hometown stand. Lo-def, smeared and polluted by crude effects and clumsy camera angles it may be, but surely no serious student of Burma would want to be without it. The sight of guitarist/vocalist Roger Miller wearing rifle range ear defenders is particularly poignant, as their inability to ward off his encroaching tinnitus was a significant factor in the band’s breakup. The jabbing asides at rock aristocracy are priceless, too, including “If you gave us time we could get as bad as The Who” and “This is a Billy Joel song”. Despite the early-warning presence of a couple of cops, who stroll on stage in an attempt to quell the stagediving, the stage is repeatedly subsumed beneath a sweaty mass of heaving bodies.
All told, “Vs.” is a subtly but definitely different spin on the Burma sound than “Signals, Calls And Marches”, but I’d be hard-pressed to rate one above the other, especially when Matador’s consistently sumptuous packaging garlandry is taken into account.