“Forget what you know” goes the solitary lyrical line of “Opener”, which is cheekily the 11th and final song on the fifth and latest Mission of Burma studio album, Unsound — which so happens to be the fourth album the group has released since reforming 10 years ago. Clearly, the band definitely wants listeners and fans to take that lyric to heart. The Boston-based alternative-pop-noise quartet has gone off in a different approach to writing songs for the album, in an effort to change things up on their first disc for U.K.-based Fire Records since the band’s stint on Matador came to a close earlier this year, forcing the group to search out a new label partner. For starters, the band reached out of their comfort zone by taking on different instruments than they were used to and changing things up in the studio, which, it turns out, is their Boston rehearsal space. Guitarist Roger Miller wrote two of the songs (“ADD in Unison” and the aforementioned “Opener”) on the bass. Opening song and first single, the noisy and angular “Dust Devil”, was actually written on the acoustic guitar. A trumpet makes an appearance on “ADD in Unison” and “What They Tell Me”, played Shellac’s Bob Weston, who has replaced Martin Swope from the band’s early ‘80s incarnation. All of these things add to a decidedly different approach, an attempt to freshen things, a reason to release another album. And, yet, the end result sounds exactly like a Mission of Burma album. As the French saying goes (and I roughly paraphrase here): the more that things change, the more they stay the same.
That’s not to say that Unsound isn’t a good album. It kinda is, or is at least a somewhat decent one. However, it is also a somewhat unremarkable record, especially when you hold it up against their full-length master stroke: 1982’s Vs. While Vs. is a groovy and fluid album of structured noise that still sounds remarkably fresh even today — making you wonder if listening to it 30 years ago was like hearing a bomb go off in your inner ear — Unsound is the product of a band that is striving to remain relevant after a host of imitators have flooded the marketplace. So while you can nod your head enthusiastically to a song like “Opener” or get caught up in the chimey guitars of “Second Television”, there is still a lingering sense of the familiar, which is a little odd considering all of the effort that went into the making of this product, this statement. Unsound, ultimately, is not the sound of your dad’s Mission of Burma. Here it is predictable, calculating and slightly off kilter for the sake of it. In fact, the group even offers up a possible self-criticism in the song “Semi-Pseudo-Sort-of-Plan” (which itself sounds a little like a self-criticism about the game plan going forth into making this disc): “Beware of vast improvements” the song goes in the chorus. Indeed. Indeed.
What makes Unsound particularly, urm, unsound is that you can actually hear flashes of the influences of bands that were influenced by Mission of Burma, which creates a rather weird reverse osmosis effect. “Second Television”, in places, sounds like it could have been concocted by Tobin Sprout from Guided by Voices. The alterna-stomp of “Sectionals in Mourning” kind of renders itself as a sludgier version of any song that Mike Watt has played on throughout his career. The silly and inconsequential “This is Hi-Fi” could pass as an R.E.M. arena anthem, complete with Michael Stipe-style vocals transported in through a megaphone. And I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but “Semi-Pseudo-Sort-of Plan” is kind of like it got dialed out of the ‘90s — sounding a bit like Live perhaps, if you squint your ears enough. Plus, there’s a lyric here that goes “where did you sleep last night?”, which you can parse amongst yourselves as to whether or not that’s a Nirvana by way of Leadbelly reference or not.
At this point, it may seem like I have a particular hate for this record. Quite the contrary. I particularly enjoyed Unsound upon my first listen, and there’s a sort of pleasure that can be derived from it if you’re not holding it up to close inspection. And, clearly, the band is having a blast with the material — there’s a bit of loose energy that abounds in the record, despite its calculations, and, hey, it’s great to still have Mission of Burma around, miraculously reformed, especially given that the band’s original run was cut short due to Miller’s hearing problems. There is a bit of a sense of humour here, too. The song “Part the Sea” is deliberately followed in the set list by “Fell –> H20”. (Get it? “Fell into the Water”?) Water imagery continues on with the follow-up song, “ADD in Unison”, which boasts the opening lyric, “When you swim against the current / You must really enjoy the waves.” So, with all of that said and the attention to a certain liquid motif, it’s probably a bit unfair that one might be harping on the band for producing an album that’s lackluster when compared to their timeless earlier output. After all, how many times can we ask a group to deliver something as sterling as “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver”?
For that reason, you might be happy just to have another record from these guys. Here’s the thing, though: for all of the fact that this is a largely joyous album, age is starting to creep up to these guys. There are moments on Unsound where the vocals sound cracked and strangled, as though the group is struggling to keep pace with the noise and abrasiveness offered by the instruments their playing. This, too, may seem like a rather churlish criticism: aren’t rock stars allowed to grow old and deal with it on their own terms? Do we knock Mick Jagger for trying to pull off all of the same stage moves that he did in his youth? Of course not. However, the effect on Unsound is rather distressing. This is not to suggest that Mission of Burma should act their age, but there’s a lingering feeling that maybe they should rethink their shtick beyond exchanging instruments and adding a flourish of trumpet.
So, while the overall effect of Unsound doesn’t herald something new — it won’t foreshadow another Sonic Youth as Vs.’s “New Nails” is said to have done — and it too often feels like it is looking in the rear view mirror and previous glories, it is what it is. It is a simply passable new recording from a group that is near mythological and legendary in the American alternative music scene of the early ‘80s. You can play it loud. You can get lost in all of its atonalness. You can pump your fist to it. It’s just that it’s no longer earth-shattering or novel or new. Unsound is simply the sound of a band retreading what it did 30 years ago, even if they put conscious effort into making a few distinct changes to how their sound was delivered. You can thus take this or leave it. Me? All I can tell you is that if it came down to a choice between Unsound and Vs., I’m going to choose the game changer any day, no matter how old it is. Maybe I’m content living in the past. Given what they offer on Unsound, so are the members of Mission of Burma.