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.