“Unbound by caution tape…”
If put on the spot, I’d probably call Mission of Burma my favorite band—at least they’re the only one I’ve flown across the country to see live. Of course, this was 2002 with only a handful of reunion shows planned, and little did I know that they’d stick around another decade-and-a-half and I’d get to see ‘em another half dozen times. No exaggeration, my most pure sensation of sheer elation was at a MoB show—hearing for the first time yet more improbable new material, and in retrospect some of those songs must have been these. Of their four new millennium albums, this is the one that gets the least respect. Only one or two of the songs are still played these days and drummer Peter Prescott said something to the effect that they were kinda spinning their wheels on this one—of course that’s the kind of thing you tell a journalist when promoting your latest record (Unsound, 2012) to sell the point that the new one is really different. I thought Prescott was the most invigorated presence on OnOffOn (2004) and Clint Conley brought the best songs to The Obliterati (2006) but The Sound The Speed The Light is Roger Miller’s record. The most prolific and consequently least consistent of the band’s three songwriters, the other records from the 2000s could have been tightened up with a couple fewer Miller songs. If you count the very fine “Innermost” / ”…And Here It Comes” 45 from the same year, SSL were the most filler-free sessions they’d done since the early 80s…
And Conley’s “1, 2, 3, Partyy!” most convincingly recalls their 30-year-younger selves in energy, though at that age they would have put forth rules for a cause more idealistic than partying. A great opener for sure, and stands with the most anthemic of Conley’s songs. “Possession” on the other hand is deadly serious, and rolls and tumbles along with Miller’s jagged riffs, and while his dreamlike lyrics are nonsensical (“memories are physical … phys-i-cal memories!)” they have their cumulative effect. Why this song hasn’t secured a lasting spot in the live set is beyond me. Rightfully democratic, Prescott gets the next slot with the pounding “Blunder.” It reliably delivers the goods, though probably the least of his three songs here. Powerful opening statements from each duly noted, the LP begins to settle into an album proper. Roger stretches out with the lovely but still plenty noisy “Forget Yourself” (forgetting a favorite pastime of his, from the early almost-love song “Forget” to the last words to date from MoB, Unsound‘s concluding mantra imploring the listener to “Forget What You Know!”). With a nice segue into “After The Rain,” the record assumes a more lived-in feel, like we’re really headed somewhere with these guys, as opposed to just getting hit with songs that may or may not hold their own. I guess “SSL 83” would be the title track, the number referring to the year they left us the first time? It floats at an improbable velocity (“we prefer the slipstream to ordinary air”) sounding like Conley has just caught on to shoegaze and is utterly unlike anything else he has written (and we get some of the most overt tape manipulations from Bob Weston here, creating a swirling chamber of voices bordering on psychedelic). The song somehow comes to a smooth halt, and side two opens with the blunt force of one of Prescott’s strangest, near-shapeless songs, “One Day We Will Live There.” By the end, it’s impossible to make out what he’s hollering about, and the solace he’s seeking in the early verses seems forever futile. “So Fuck It” is Miller at his most direct, leaving the dream world behind for the experiential (“there’s no time like the present – Look, there it is!”) with some smart hooks and a satisfyingly angular breakdown. A bit tricky to shoehorn something as mellow as “Feed” in here (complete with talk about making tea ferchrissakes) but the album needs a breather and this is probably the best slot for it. Conley is the most melodic writer of the three, and adapts words from the poet and longtime collaborator Holly Anderson. It’s a beaut, and this and his “Partyy!” are the only ones played anymore. In the homestretch, with trademark tremelo Miller ushers in a true Prescott classic in “Good Cheer.” With some abrupt mood and tempo shifts, it’s a shout-a-long denunciation of ill-advised positive thinking (singling out “the infernal optimist!”) and a total blast. “Comes Undone” is one of Miller’s greatest songs—both moving (palpable regret a rare emotion to hear from him) and structurally perfect (hearing Prescott and Conley chime in one at a time on the title chant is devastating). Inexplicably, this too hasn’t been played in 6 years, and likely never again (though it did make the cut of their latest best-of collection). For a long time, I thought “Slow Faucet” was a bit of a letdown, and I’m still not quite convinced of it as a composition, but it’s grown on me as the closer. It’s simmers along, turning the screws and building until it impressively stops on a dime. Again, while they aren’t going to be mistaken for Crosby, Stills and Nash, the interplay of voices exemplifies how these individual writers are always in service of the band, and why the contributions to others’ songs are so successful on this record. There’s no doubt in my mind that Miller came up with the perversely fragile intro to “Blunder” and his “rah rah rah, here we go!” on “Good Cheer” is positively giddy.
This may be it for MoB I dunno. Despite a Record Store Day split 7” with METZ (both bands covering the other), a public radio appearance and a few shows earlier this year, I can’t help but get the feeling they might be winding down. Conley has said “the songwriting has slowed” and post-Unsound, Miller’s had a couple new ones in the set, so maybe they’ve got a perfect EP still in ‘em, and I’ll be as stoked as anyone to get it. Thus concludes my Peter Prescott three-fer (anything but a “trilogy”) but I’m sure I’ll get to a Volcano Suns album soon.