Mission of Burma

The Obliterati

(Matador; 2006)

By Peter Hepburn | 26 January 2008

Two years ago Mission of Burma released their second studio album, ONoffON, their first output in some 19 years. It was a middling record, drowning in stale, warmed over ideas and a desperate desire to sound hip. Received by adoring critics with rave reviews the album did reasonably well, though I find it hard to believe that many of these critics have really spent too much quality time with the record since then. I threw it on last week when I was thinking about The Obliterati, Mission of Burma’s follow-up, and didn’t find it much more interesting than I did two years back.

Of course, now it suffers even more by comparison. Whereas two years ago we could chalk up the shitty sound quality and underwritten lyrics of ONoffON the overeager attempts of middle-aged men to fit in, The Obliterati shows us why people really cared when Burma resurfaced in 2001. This new album has all the rock, creativity, and anthemic punk drive that made the band great back in the early ‘80s, yet still lets the band forge new ground. As of right now it’s the best punk record of the year and ought to finally earn Burma the praises so eagerly and undeservedly heaped upon its immediate predecessor.

The change comes through best on tracks like “Donna Sumeria” and “Man in Decline.” Listen to those two and tell me you don’t have that same fist-pumping instinct that defines “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” or “Academy Fight Song.” The difference is where the latter songs played it straight, the new ones are more willing to spiral off into new territory. “Donna Sumeria” opens out onto a weird soul-rock breakdown in its latter half, while “Man in Decline” goes all Matt Friedberger backward-singing on us. All through the album Burma proves again and again that they’re unwilling to get penned into a genre, experimenting with more singer-songwriter and melodic elements.

This is not to say that the album isn’t without many of the flaws that plagued ONoffON, just to a distinctly lesser degree. Primarily, the band still sounds like it’s recording through the same gear they were using in 1982, giving songs like “13” and “Is This Where” a layer of grime they could do without. While the lyrics, on the album definitely outshine those of the last album, you still have to wonder why Burma is writing songs about Nancy Reagan and her tiny little head (hilarious as the closer is, it still feels a bit too mid-‘80s).

Overall, though, The Obliterati excels. In a counterpoint to my review of ONoffON, Amir Nezar argued that Burma was picking up where Fugazi left off. It’s an interesting point, and I’d say much more true of this album than the last. Here we get those huge, vibrant bass lines (seriously, “Careening with Conviction” ought to make Joe Lally proud), the quirky experimentation, and some of the sort of punk rockers that it only ever seemed Fugazi could muster. “Spider’s Web,” “Careening,” “Good, Not Great,” and “Period” all fit the mold pretty well.

Of course, the one bull in the china shop on this one is “2wice.” Conley, Miller, and Prescott are squaring off against the likes of T.I. and Nelly Furtado for song-of-the-year honors on this one; the song is so single-handedly indignant, vicious, and damningly furious that it manages to nearly overshadow the greatness of much of the rest of The Obliterati. The band is firing on absolutely all cylinders here, Peter Prescott opening both the song and the album with that manic drum attack and Roger Miller doing his best to get every ounce of noise out of his guitar. Clint Conley’s lyrics and delivery are spot-on, leaving that chorus of, “you’ve got me / dead to rights,” stinging every time.

Burma may not be as youthful or revolutionary as they were back in ’81 and ’82, but after releasing a tepid reunion offering in ONoffON, The Obliterati shows that not only do they deserve that Matador contract, they may still be an Important Band. They’ve managed to produce the best American rock record of the year so far; not bad for a bunch of middle-aged guys from Boston with a nasty case of tinnitus.