Friday, July 13, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 7/13/12 - Sonny and the Sunsets and Mission of Burma

Sonny Smith’s reputation to this point has been a pop dude doing double time in the art world. But with Sonny and the Sunsets’ Longtime Companion he makes a serious play for both country-rock and the decidedly dicey proposition of the Breakup Record. While the least of the Sunsets’ releases thus far, it still proves worth the effort, particularly for fans of strong contemporary songwriting.
Pop troubadours don’t usually come with pedigrees that include playwriting and performance art, and that’s just one aspect of Sonny Smith’s persona that’s helped to make him so interesting. To be sure this kind of artistic double dipping can lead to underwhelming and occasionally even irritating results, mainly due to simple creative arrogance.
But in reality musicians have been double and triple dipping into diverse artistic mediums for a very long time; John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Richard Hell all published books for instance. And outside the realm of rock music Tony Bennett is a prolific painter and Louis Armstrong was a truly inspired collage artist.
At this late date artistic multi-dipping is far from any great surprise, but in rock terms the story of Sonny Smith still feels a bit unusual, maybe even fanciful. Out on the road at nineteen years old, playing blues piano in bars? Sounds like the makings of a really good screenplay. Original songs, short stories and even some plays get penned along the way? How Beat. And then that commission from the literary magazine arrives, compelling him to put together a CD of those plays set to music? Really, this is getting almost too good to be true.
But One Act Plays essentially served as Smith’s coming out party, in large part due to the participation of such notables as Neko Case, Jolie Holland, American Music Club’s Mark Eitzel and Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer. The inclusion of the last two names is no accident; Smith’s a San Francisco boy.
But if sensibly touched by the hand of regionalism, his focus reached far beyond the norms of mere geographical musical networking, for the songs behind 100 Records, a project that provided Smith with another large spike in notoriety, all began their lives as part of an art instillation.
100 Records found one hundred different artists creating seven inch picture sleeves for their own fictive bands/performers with Smith then writing two songs to accompany each. Any way it’s sliced an endeavor of this magnitude stood as a major challenge. If only halfway successful it would still reek strongly of failure, presenting an aura of that aforementioned creative arrogance, even if the intention was actually just ambitiousness.
Thankfully for Smith and for listeners he proved up to the task, displaying chops and imagination to spare, and since that time he’s been off to the races under the moniker of Sonny and the Sunsets. 2009 saw the release of Tomorrow is Alright on the Soft Abuse label and last year found him/them on Fat Possum with Hit After Hit.
Both records found Smith honing rare songwriting ability and a breadth of influence that was at times striking in how it all registered as one guy’s inspired output. However, they could also be adequately summed up as blending Smith’s penchant for old-school pop simplicity (like a lot of relative new jacks, he’s a big doo-wop fan) with a smartly applied swath of friendly contempo psyche action. In my neighborhood that’s what’s called good stuff.
Now here’s Longtime Companion, the country informed Breakup Record. Another dangerous and yes potentially disastrous move from a guy who seems to love these kinds of chances, but due to Smith’s talent as a writer and his heretofore lack of interest in waxing overly autobiographical, he avoids falling into the trap of cringe-inducing confessionals, painful polemics or woe-is-me platitudes. In the end Smith delivers his least successful document under the Sunsets banner, though to be fair the record only really suffers in comparison to his previous pair.
Choosing country music as the vehicle for an examination of lover’s heartbreak might seem like cliché. In fact that’s exactly what it is, but instead of straining for a spurious authenticity Smith smartly settles for alt-country legitimacy that works rather well across Longtime Companion’s ten tracks. “Sea of Darkness” comes closest to achieving an actual country aura, thanks to some boldly honky-tonk-like steel guitar. It’s ultimately more Byrdsian than Buck Owens-esque however, and the sound of Smith’s voice, a bit like a smoother, more relaxed Peter Stempfel, is just the kind of thing to make Ralph Emery spit bullets.
Much of the record might be better described as radiating an alt-folky vibe, a sound immediately palpable on opener “I Was Born”, which begins with some home-spun picking only to see those basics embellished with swells of fragile flute. To be sure, it’s a sound by now well worn with precedent, but Smith avoids the trite with subtle touches, in particular the tough simplicity of a hi-hat rhythm, it’s locomotion helping to keep those flutes from sounding too precious, as flutes are wont to do.
“Dried Blood” increases Smith’s vocal similarity to Stempfel, and in fact the tune sounds somewhat like an outtake from a lost (and sadly mythical) Holy Modal Rounders session recorded at the barn of Owen Bradley roughly circa ’68. And the arrival of some rollicking barrelhouse piano midway through the track only adds to this situation.
This, along with a few very brief nods to Michael Hurley, assists Longtime Companion in shaping up as a fresh extension of last decade’s New Weird affairs, closer to Devendra Banhart and Vetiver than his San Fran subterranean-pop cohorts Fresh and Onlys and Shannon and the Clams. But as the record progresses this freakishly folky aspects lessens considerably, replaced by a quality mildly reminiscent of Conor Oberst in Mystic Valley Band mode.
Well-drawn alt-folk, again; the major difference is that Oberst is very much a heart on the sleeve kind of guy and Smith, even when recording an album inspired by the end of a ten year relationship, prefers varying amounts of emotional distance.
Smith’s detachment and his even-handedness help Longtime Companion to transcend its major flaw. Specifically, the record’s first half bogs down with three tracks that needed some editing for length. “Pretend You Love Me”, the best of the trio, unfolds like a fine slice of pop from the ‘70s Laurel Canyon. The song’s duration alone (five and a half minutes, to be clear) isn’t a problem, but when placed between “Children of the Beehive” and the extended country shuffle of “Year of the Cock” the trifecta adds up to a need for the concise.
The record rebounds solidly in its second half however, beginning with the sweet and lean instrumental workout “Rhinestone Sunset”. It all starts in a rather trad-country frame of mind, coming off like one of those honky-tonk breakdowns where every player gets a little time to strut their stuff and toss off some sweet licks, but soon enough the spotlight is given over to synths, electric keyboards and yes those flutes, an instrument that’s a recurring motif on Longtime Companion. And “Rhinestone Sunset” leads into the warm strangeness of “I See a Void”, the album’s strongest individual track, at least at this early point.
The rest of the album just rolls. The prominent pedal steel continues from “Sea of Darkness” into “My Mind Messed Up”, though again its presence signifies far less of a natural Nashville inflection than it recalls the hippie-country sound of CSN&Y’s “Teach Your Children”.
And the closing title track deepens Longtime Companion’s often superb designs as a real player’s record. While the disc assuredly exists to map out a bevy of emotional issues to Smith’s satisfaction, it’s nice to find him not forsaking the musicianship in fleshing out a way forward. Therefore, the album works for us as well as for him.
So if the least satisfying Sonny and the Sunsets release, Longtime Companion’s lesser status isn’t any cause for concern. It’s simply a breakup record from a guy that was once more likely to get wrote up in Artforum than in Rolling Stone. In other words, it’s another step in Sonny Smith’s unusual trip. Personally, I’d like to hear him return to that pop smorgasbord approach, but whatever path he chooses from here will be intriguing at the very least.

Mission of Burma have just released Unsound, their fourth record since reforming in 2002, and it continues the odds defying level of quality that marks them as the indie-rock reunion against which all others will be compared. The secret seems to be an unusually high personal standard combined with a desire to not take it all too seriously. That and excellent songs, of course.
I’m just going to come right out and say it; Mission of Burma’s second incarnation is the more impressive of their existence’s two segments, and as strong as the reunited original lineup of fellow Massachusetts residents Dinosaur Jr. has been (both on record and in the club), it still takes a backseat to Burma’s rekindled achievement.
Obviously many, even partisans of the band’s current activities, will balk at this assessment, mainly because their Mk I discography, while the leanest oeuvre of all the life-changing ’80s American underground proto-indie bands, is very persuasively the most accomplished pound-for-pound; a seven inch, an EP, an LP and a live album, and all of them stone classics.
Plus, in the context of first-wave hardcore’s last-stand and subsequent fallout, Burma’s expansive sound and manner of conduct served as a real guiding light for those looking for an alternative to the restrictions of the Loud Fast Rules. In this regard they shared the stage with Hüsker Dü, but the main difference between the two entities was Burma’s music being significantly more cerebral in execution, a reality that helped to keep the blatant copyists at a minimum and the late ‘80s backlash at bay.
Backlash? Yeah, by 1988 actually finding copies of Mission of Burma’s Ace of Hearts releases was a total chore, so the Rykodisc label undertook a stuffed to the gills, eighty-plus minute (the first of its kind) self-titled compact disc that served as the actual introduction for many listeners (such as yours truly) to an already hallowed group.
The problem many older, undeniably grumpy fanzine types had with this once-posthumous flowering was less a musical beef than a case of bitterness (some might say sour grapes) over the perception of many peers and a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies (such as yours truly) leaping onto a bandwagon that five years prior held a surplus of elbow room.
Because of all those ‘80s u-ground entities, let’s call them the Our Band Could Be Your Life bands, Burma was the least appreciated while extant, a fact that’s assisted in making that rather amazing output of their first phase (that’s ’79 to ’83) register as even more remarkable in retrospect. Indeed, listening repeatedly to the pure manna of that Rykodisc CD really drove home that a whole mess of ears missed sailing on a ridiculously beautiful boat.
But in reality Mission of Burma wasn’t ignored, at least not on their home turf, where they were played on both college and commercial FM radio. They were simply misapprehend by many, taken for granted by others, and perceived as too mature by the stubble-domed youth of Boston’s regenerative punk scene. Ahead of the curve and belatedly adored; it all adds up to a situation called Legendary Status.
And any band of that distinction that reconvenes with the intention of releasing new music courts serious disaster. But even if that circumstance is successfully dodged, it’s still a near cinch that no matter how positive a reaction said group’s fresh output receives it will still take a backseat to the old stuff.
Not that many of these bands have the guts to step forth with new material after being anointed with the distinction of cornerstone act, and understandably so, since the fear of public failure is simply too great. It’s much safer to just take the old stuff on tour for the big money grab ala The Pixies or Pavement.
But Burma’s first reunion shows in ’02 and the release of ONoffON two years later were openly about unfinished business; their breakup wasn’t due to intra-band conflict or displeasure with their level of success after all, it was related directly to Roger Miller going deaf.
That ugly affliction called Tinnitus brought them to an abrupt halt. And it was Miller’s rehabbed ears and a general desire for a more appropriate sense of closure, particularly after getting enshrined in the indie-rock pantheon that found Burma back together again. And it all went so well that guitarist Miller, bassist Clint Conley and drummer Peter Prescott, with Shellac’s Bob Weston replacing Martin Swope as tape-looper/soundman, have continued to release records with a refreshing and rather rare general attitude, electing to challenge each other with the task of creating a consistently evolving Mk II discography.
On the face of it this mindset might seem the least any band charging cash on the barrelhead for records or live shows should muster, but the sad temperament behind so many releases old and new falls much closer to the motto “Hey, it beats working for a living”. Unsound, Mission of Burma’s third full-length since reignition, continues their improbable trajectory of quality by both refusing to settle for formula and by persisting in sidestepping the generally impossible expectations of Legendary Status.
To wit, Burma has smartly avoided the impulse to top the elevated standing of their past recordings. Instead, from ‘06’s The Obliterati to this latest release, the stated desire has been to simply make strong, satisfying records from within the general parameters of the Mission of Burma sound, a point of attack that provides far more leeway than expected. The only standard the band has taken to heart is its own; avoid going through the motions.
Much of the vitality in Burma’s second life rests upon the unabashed heaviness of their sound. While ‘82’s Vs. and especially the ’85 live LP The Horrible Truth About Burma indicated the level of raucousness the band was capable of delivering, studio material like ‘80’s “Academy Fight Song” 7-inch and the following year’s  Signals, Calls and Marches EP deliberately put the Art in front of the Rock, and added a hyphen for good measure.
However, the band’s three Matador releases and Unsound, their first for UK label Fire, bring forth the power without any hesitation, sounding much closer to the band’s live sound. And this has been achieved without sacrificing those highly defining “art-rock” traits.
In fact, “Dust Devil”, Unsound’s two minute opener, combines these attributes as strongly as anything they’ve released in the 21st Century, blending moments of tough angularity with suitably tight rhythmic propulsion and throwing in their smart and distinctive vocal weave.
But there are surprises in store, such as guitarist Miller’s use of effects pedal on “Semi-Pseudo-Sort-Of Plan”. Specifically, it greatly emphasizes the psyche/Detroit angle that’s always bubbled under the surface in Burma’s story, for not only did Miller originally hail from Ann Arbor MI (home of The Stooges, dontcha know) but Sproton Layer, his high school band with younger bros Ben and Larry, kicked up some impressive psychedelic dust via some recordings circa 1970.
Those tapes were later issued by the New Alliance label twenty-two years later under the title With Magnetic Fields Disrupted, and the record not only shed valuable light upon Miller’s formative years but also helped to explain why Burma came off so levelheaded and well focused in a sea of youngsters exemplifying the opposite.
But  outside of Horrible Truth’s smoking cover of The Stooges’ “1970” and their live take of Barrett-era Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine”, Burma has generally tended toward cultivating their punk (or post-punk, if you prefer) sensibility, as their renditions of Pere Ubu, The Dils and The Wipers testify.
And on Unsound’s “Sectionals in Mourning”, “This is Hi-Fi” and “Second Television” the band continue mining that art-punk reserve with prime results. But “Part the Sea” works up an anthemic, fist pumping head of steam markedly different than anything I’ve heard from Burma before, and “Fell-->H2O” opens and closes with a tidy yet endearingly odd little psyche-funk guitar progression that had me picturing a dusted Robbie Krieger riffing in praise of the peace frog. Like, heavy man.
Due to the inclusion of trumpet the cuts “ADD in Unison” and “What They Tell Me” will bring the highest level of attention to Burma’s stated desire to keep it fresh through mixing up and messing with the program. But the appearance of Bob Weston’s tasty horn licks is far from the only striking departure on “ADD in Unison”, for Miller’s writing on the track’s first half pushes the same lovely buttons as Mike Watt’s work of recent vintage. And any Pedro/Beantown overlap is a mighty fine development to these ears, as is Weston’s spray of loosey-goosey valve-splatter on “What They Tell Me”; did somebody say art-punk?
To close, Unsound is a very well assembled record. Beginning with the short blast of “Dust Devil”, it quickly segues into the disc’s heartiest, lengthier numbers before wrapping up with a galvanizing three-punch combo of effective brevity; “7’s”, “What They Tell Me” and the ripping denouement that is “Opener”, a near instrumental save for the phrase repeated emphatically at track’s end, the last sound’s heard from this superb album: “Forget what you know”.
Picking the finest full length Mission of Burma album is a very easy task, for Vs. is essentially a perfect record, one of the ‘80s Ten Best in this writer’s estimation. To decide upon the band’s second best is an endeavor far more difficult, and Unsound has happily complicated the effort even more.

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