Mission of Burma: OnoffON

Jason Korenkiewicz

Mission of Burma


Label: Matador
US Release Date: 2004-05-04
UK Release Date: 2004-05-31

Herein lies the horrible truth about Burma. After more than two decades away, Mission of Burma have returned to grace us with the 16-track self-produced OnoffON, a strident and stirring album that ranks as one of the finest in their career. This is a record that validates 22 years of musician and fan worship, somehow proving that a band can pick up their career right where they left off without so much as a trace of their absence. It is a certainty that OnoffON will end the year firmly lodged in the top 10 lists of hundreds of rock critics and will also occupy a spot near the top of the Village Voice's prestigious annual Pazz and Jop poll. So why then, with all of this adulation, is there a negative aspect to this review? Despite the overwhelming greatness of their return and new album, at times it feels like nothing more than the sound of one hand clapping, a valiant performance for an empty room.

The landscape hasn't changed much in the past two plus decades. When Clint Conley, Roger Miller and Peter Prescott closed down shop in 1982, the country was led by a deluded republican president intent on utilizing military force for geographic expansion under the banner of manifest destiny, the economy was in shambles due to the export of American jobs, and the populace were suffering a crisis of faith. Based on the similar state they returned to, we can hardly blame Mission of Burma for generating an exact replica of their original sound on OnoffON. The vocals are chopped and chanted, guitars bleed on the tracks and the rhythm section careens off into the night chasing a delicate and elusive melody. If I weren't aware of their triumphant return, I would believe this to be their "lost classic" album recorded sometime around their break-up 1983. While true believers will trumpet this as an enduring example of Burma's ability to sustain I must admit that I find it a bit eerie. Tracks like "The Setup", "Max Ernst's Dream" and "Into the Fire" would have felt right at home on Vs. with their roof-raising kinetic performances and challenging subversive lyrics. The one thing that screams out to me is how little the outside world has shaped these men in the past two decades. Sure, the world really hasn't changed drastically, but these are the songs of men who haven't changed their political opinions or been influenced by a new album since they disbanded. That sentiment makes OnoffON feel like a lost relic in spots rather than a dynamic new album by an underground legend.

Despite what others might say, it is an objective truth that Mission of Burma created the rock anthem. Past classics like "Academy Fight Song" and "That's When I Reach for My Revolver" from Signals, Calls & Marches have been covered more times than the field at Fenway Park during rain delays. OnoffON sustains their mantle as kings of the anthem with blow away cuts, "Falling", "Fever Moon" and album closer "Absent Mind". An obvious melody and guest-backing vocal from fellow New Englander Tanya Donelly anchors the brilliance of "Falling". Strip away the distorted guitars and bombastic percussion and the remaining skeleton is the most delicate pop song Roger Miller has ever written. Driven by marching band gone death metal percussion and the aggressive vocal dirge of Clint Conley "Fever Moon" hits its stride in the chorus behind the somber lyrics, "Am I hot?/ Am I cold?/ When did this fever take its hold/ I know yours/ You know mine/ Knock me off the wall when I feel fine/ You and I return to the scene of the crime." The tape loops of Bob Weston, replacing original member Martin Swope, merge with Conley's guitar to create an unsettling atmosphere where a wrong step could be the last. The band hits the ball out of the park on final track "Absent Mind". One of the three songs written by drummer Peter Prescott, "Absent Mind" fuses the guitar rhythm with Prescott's drumming to create a combustible wall of sound. The frenzy is heightened by impromptu squealing guitar leads and the throttled go for broke yelping of the song title in repetition through out song. It is truly inspiring that this group could resume their work after this break and produce a series of gripping numbers that are on par with the finest in their history.

The inherent duality of OnoffON makes for an enjoyable yet complicated listen. It is clear that Prescott, Conley and Miller have crafted a magnificent work that rivals their former selves for preeminence in the history of Mission of Burma. While a core of enthusiasts will proclaim this to be the most authentic reunion in rock history, the question looms as to how this album will be received by the youth. MoB was a band that galvanized a disenchanted punk underground during their original run, all the while planting the seeds for the college rock movement that would blossom later in the decade. This time around the musical underground is more diffuse and compartmentalized with hundreds of genres, sub-genres and their respective artists crowding the playing field. Unless OnoffON is able to provide some universal theme to bind these disparate listeners it is possible that this return may fall short of the expectations created by the music on this album. There is no more horrible fate than to create a work of genius and then have it go unheard.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.