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Mission of Burma, Sean Lennon, Los Cenzontles and The Swimmers

By Brian Baker · November 6th, 2009 · I Shall Be Released

My kidneys — specifically, the left one — seem more concentrated on producing solids than processing liquids, and I remain worse for the wear. This has been the longest stone experience I’ve had in memory. I held off on scheduling an appointment with an urologist because I was certain it would be over relatively quickly. At one point it seemed to be, but after a night and morning of relative peace the throb returned the following afternoon.

This has been a particularly downcast week; my dearest friend in Michigan performed some physical function that his tremulous back strenuously disagreed with, putting him in the hospital with a badly ruptured disc and no recourse but surgery. We had been planning a weekend project — he was going to drive down, spend the night, then we were going to drive back to Michigan to do some consolidation on his storage units. His back being less than stable, I was going to be on hand to do the heavy lifting. I was going to see my son and some friends in Michigan, and then we’d head back after the weekend.

We were looking forward to it on a number of levels, the most basic being that we’ve known each other for nearly 50 years (we started kindergarten together) and in all that time, for a variety of circumstantial reasons, we’ve never done a road trip together.

Being down to one car for over a year and a half has made my once quarterly trips to Michigan a distant memory, so Barry’s offer to drive all the way down to retrieve me and bring me home was incredibly generous and much anticipated. Now I’m just thankful that his surgery was successful and he’s home and on the mend.

We’ll get to that road trip eventually, when we’re both in better shape to fully enjoy the experience.

And in between stone cycles, I’ve managed to get a little reviewage done — enjoy the fruits of my labor. There has to be a labored fruits joke in there I’m missing because I’m fuzzy from the Vicodin; insert your own if you’re so inclined.

Mission of Burma has one of Rock’s oddest career arcs: A four-year run yielded a pair of singles, an EP (Signals, Calls and Marches), a full length (Vs.) and an almost unfathomable amount of influence, with bands like Sonic Youth, Nirvana, R.E.M., Superchunk, Throwing Muses, Fugazi and Guided by Voices all claiming to have been inspired by the band.

And then the band was undone in 1982, not by internal strife or fame or the lack thereof, but by the volume they conjured on stage every night, a presence that filled clubs like a living thing and afflicted guitarist Roger Miller with a near career-ending case of tinnitus.

But in one of the greatest second acts in Rock history, technology advanced to the point that Miller could protect his hearing, making a Mission of Burma reunion a reality … 20 years after the band’s dissolution. After a handful of impromptu shows in 2002, Miller, bassist Clint Conley and drummer Peter Prescott reconvened in the studio to produce the amazing ONoffON in 2004, doubling their full album output. Two years later came Mission’s equally improbable and even more unexpected third album, The Obliterati, a deliberately difficult and incredibly solid album.

Three years later, the most unlikely comeback in modern memory continues with the release of The Sound The Speed The Light, Mission of Burma’s fourth and — dare we say it? — perhaps best album.

The frenetic Punk blurt of “1, 2, 3, Partyy!” launches the album in grand style at a pace befitting a much younger and hungrier band, one in love with classic Love and maybe a little Richard Hell, with lyrics that dispense a little night on the town instructional wisdom (“One/Don’t look at anyone/Two/Drink only when drunken to/Three/Plan out your drinks then go out and drink your plan ...”). “Possession” reimagines Gang of Four’s martial rhythms in a swinging jungle Psych Funk context, “Blunder” sounds like a lost collaboration between Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band and Echo and the Bunnymen and “Forget Yourself” is one of Mission’s patented sonic canvas constructions, a Post Punk expanse of melodic noise and jarring rhythm.

After several spins of The Sound The Speed The Light, it seems hard to believe that the album was just recorded; it sounds more like the raw and trailblazing sophomore album we all expected from Mission of Burma after Vs. an inconceivable 27 years ago. It’s just further evidence of the band’s visionary status and solid proof that Mission of Burma’s influence was, and remains, as real as an exhibit in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where these guys belong in a first ballot heartbeat.

Between the Twilight series, The Vampire’s Assistant, The Vampire Diaries and True Blood, immortal bloodsuckers are hotter than hell’s hinges right now. And the first rule in making a hot thing into a hotter thing is to cross-pollinate it with something that matches or exceeds the original thing’s already blistering heat potential. So naturally, writer/director Jordan Galland decided to amp up the BTU’s of the current vampire craze by pairing it with … Shakespeare?

In Galland’s new film, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead, a vampire playwright crafts a twisted Hamlet adaptation and the action in the movie is mingled with the play within the film, all of it relating variously to Shakespeare’s original play and the two subsequent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern productions, written by W.S. Gilbert and Tom Stoppard.

To set the musical mood for his film, Galland made the ultimately inspired decision to turn to longtime friend and collaborator Sean Lennon to create the instrumental score for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead. Lennon’s moody accompaniment is the musical reflection of the film; quirky and campy and riding the tension between subtlety and histrionics. Taking cues from Danny Elfman, Ennio Morricone and Randy Newman and the wildly evocative music for the ’70 vampire TV show Dark Shadows, Lennon has created the right balance between the stagecrafted bombast of the film’s play and genuinely creepy pace of the film itself. Only the soundtrack’s final song, the Hip Hop fueled “Desire,” featuring vocals from Kool Keith and Lennon’s former Cibo Matto bandmate Miho Hatori, seems slightly out of step with the score (especially after the carnival Jazz waltz of “Finale”), but it’s an interesting way to play the movie out nonetheless.

Los Cenzontles (Spanish for The Mockingbirds) is a rootsy Mexican band that incorporates both traditional Hispanic Folk rhythms as well as contemporary California influences in their work. The band was an offshoot of Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center; both were founded by Eugene Rodriguez in San Pablo, Calif., in 1989. Over the years, Rodriguez has been illuminating the roots of Mexican culture and obscure Folk music branches through a multitude of CD and DVD documentaries, and has collaborated with a variety of eclectic artists, including Linda Ronstandt, The Chieftains, Ry Cooder and Los Lobos. Rodriguez produced Los Lobos’ 1995 Grammy-nominated children‘s album, Papa’s Dream, and collaborated with frontman David Hidalgo for the first time on last year’s acclaimed Songs of Wood & Steel, an amazing amalgam of Rock, Blues and Mexican Folk traditions.

For their latest collaboration, American Horizon, Los Cenzontles and David Hidalgo add Blues icon and World music student Taj Mahal into the creative mix to produce a fascinating bilingual concept album that details the struggles and hopes of the immigrant worker and the universal pursuit of the American Dream.

Utilizing Blues, Tejano, Cumbia, Mexican Folk, and swirlingly psychedelic Rock elements, Los Cenzontles, Hidalgo and Taj have invested American Horizon with the musical passion inherent in all those styles while telling a story rife with desperation, hope and triumph. The few English lyrics obviously tell their own story; Taj’s “One Hot Mama” is textbook Blues with a boiling Mexican undercurrent and Hidalgo’s “Overtime” has the mystically acid-drenched sound of early Santana, while “Best of Me” throbs with the Blues/Tex-Mex/Roots Rock pulse of classic Los Lobos.

The album‘s message comes through loud and clear and the soundtrack drives it home; knowledge of Spanish is not necessary to enjoy the beauty, grace and power of American Horizon.

There’s something mildly retro about the new album by The Swimmers, People Are Soft, with its buzzy synths, sleek rhythms and cool ’80s references. At the same time, the Philadelphia quartet’s follow-up to their excellent 2008 debut, Fighting Trees, is not an unwelcome nostalgic backward glance, like an old friend who stopped living in the present two decades ago and only wants to rehash old glories in favor of moving on. The Swimmers sound like Joy Division if they’d been infected by the same Pop mania that gripped XTC, or Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark if they’d been as enamored of New Wave as Synth Pop.

Where People Are Soft truly succeeds is in the contemporary Indie Rock edge that the band applies liberally to the prismatic take on ’80s keyboard Pop. “Drug Party” has a ferocious bite that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Shins EP, while “What the World is Coming To” has the quirky sound of a collaboration between Brian Eno and Spoon and “A Hundred Hearts” pulses along like an eels tribute to OMD. And even when The Swimmers’ message might seem less than sunny they maintain an upbeat pace, coating their bitterest pills in spritely melodies and a darkly gorgeous Pop sheen.

People Are Soft is the kind of album that catches attention on the first listen and reveals new and even more provocative delights on each successive spin.



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