Music

The Mynabirds: What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood

The Mynabirds offer a respite for those seeking a unique take on pop music's current trends, as this feels like a record that will endure. It announces the band as 2010's most promising newcomers.


The Mynabirds

What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood

Label: Saddle Creek
US Release Date: 2010-04-27
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The Mynabirds is the nom de plume appended to, for most intents and purposes, the freshly varnished creative outlet of Laura Burhenn, a courageous, multi-talented singer/songwriter currently residing in Portland, Oregon. Following the dissolution of her group Georgie James, a pleasant indie pop outfit hailing from DC, Burhenn relocated clear across the country, hooked up with maverick musical chameleon Richard Swift, and recorded her debut album, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, a release that should find an encouraging reception under the hospitable wing of Nebraska-based Saddle Creek Records. Little in the scarce, affable output of her former project could have prepared us for the depths plunged here: a soul-purging, powerful statement of survival and self-assertion that stands head and shoulders above the current crop of navel-gazers populating today's underground music scene.

Swiping her name from a mythic band (the Mynah Birds) that, believe it or not, for a short time contained both Motown bass-slapper Rick James and the inimitable folk-rock icon Neil Young, the title Burhenn applies to her musical incarnation here is a fairly appropriate indication of the approach she takes. Binding together the disparate influences of slow-burning, hot-piping soul; swaying, sassy girl group pop; a gospel-tinged hymnal quality that lends her husky, smoke-burnished voice a ringing, striking command; and the sputtering, exhilarating abandon of garage rock, Burhenn creates a stylistically divergent yet singularly inspired sound that's at once charmingly reverent and spiritedly self-supportive. Wrapped up warm and wet in Richard Swift's spotless production, simultaneously spacious and expansive yet rich in detail, the emotive songwriting at the heart of the record contains an empowering mix of Zen-like optimism and sepia-toned valor. It breathes with the clarity of a survivor cutting loose of dead weight and utilizing her past as an impetus to move forward with a unshaken core all the more sufficient for what it's faced. This sense of independence could easily be crippled by solipsism if not for the enhancing reconciliation between Burhenn's vocal command and execution. Swift's studio prowess and firm grasp of mood lend the record's retro ambiance a timelessness that's overshot more often than it's achieved in today's musical environment of overreach.

Skipping between languid, torchy barn-stormers and mid-tempo, propulsive garage stompers, What We Lose in the Fire... spills forth with a reckless grace enviable in the way it tap-dances around expectations. There's a genuine winsomeness, one abundant in past eras of pop music, that elevates the record's aura of 1960s nostalgia from becoming sheer window dressing or shrewd sentimentality masquerading as veneration. Both Burhenn and Swift are well-versed in pop's past, and both breathe such a love-lorn vitality into the songs. Although they, stylistically, read as love letters to the genres and sounds they know and love, each is stamped with an individual statement of purpose that helps buoy their success. Not only that, but these two, along with the myriad of support Burhenn culls from a similar-minded set of hired hands (Nate Walcott of Bright Eyes and Tom Hnatow of These United States to name a few), exude such a camaraderie and respect for each other's sensibilities and inspirations that it practically spills over between all of the joyful expulsions set out here. Richard Swift's agile musicianship helps harness together the emotions Burhenn seeks to employ in her songs. His strangled falsetto solders an ethereal glow around her deep, throaty swoon of a voice, creating an off-kilter and disarming allure that feels oddly comforting in its effectiveness.

All of this would add up to merely a crackerjack of a mood record and a well-executed time piece, if it wasn't for a strong set of tunes, which Burhenn thankfully supplies in spades. What We Lose in the Fire... kicks the door open with the semi-title track, a soulful, swelling number that gradually builds in intensity before blowing open with an exalting vocal performance. The album may switch up its pace to catch its breath, but it rarely if ever reins in the presence of its creator's impassioned delivery or turns of phrase. The first single, "Numbers Don't Lie", revels in its dusty, rolling hook. "Let the Record Go"'s pounding rhythms allow for a sense of drama to infuse the more languid, piano-seamed moments. Burhenn warns "too much common sense will leave a bad taste in your mouth", on the clanging, short but sweet "Wash It Out" before elegantly reassuring a lover, "you've got a good heart, it's true" on the lovely, country-accented closer, "Good Heart," all warbly, twangy open-hearted consolation and weepy, pedal steeled empathy. Each song derives from a similar source of introspective acceptance of loss. Yet they avoid the songs bleeding too much into each other, by implementing varying stages and angles of recovery, painting a multi-dimensional, well-rounded portrait of the sentiments explored.

With such a crowded, convoluted number of artists arriving on the indie scene -- attached to an alarming amount of sub-genres and gasping with their heads just above water in hopes of being heard -- it's both exciting and comforting to find a talent as raw and solitary as Laura Burhenn's. She may not inform the status quo as much as she offers respite for those seeking a unique take on pop music's current trends. That's for the better, as What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood feels like a record that will endure. With this impressive debut release, the Mynabirds not only announce themselves as 2010's most promising newcomers, but bestow us with a pure, big-hearted document of strength and spirit that's as affecting and enlivening as anything pop music's past has given us.

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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