“Now perk up and listen, kiddo. The year was 1982, and I was in Boston for college — or as we used to call it, Learn-Shack University — and I was drinking a Coca-Cola and wearing my fedora, which was the style at the time …”
That’s how my granddaddy started his story about Mission of Burma. Sitting upon his knee, I waited wide-eyed as he awed me with tales of post-punk, tape machines and some classic album called Vs. that I’d always thought Pearl Jam made. He talked about Mission of Burma’s one EP and one LP, the story came to a close, and a single tear edged down my cheek as I whispered, “But what of the future, Grandpappy?”
Okay, it wasn’t actually my grandfather telling me this story … it was this guy at the record shop. And I didn’t cry, either, though I did mourn the thought of Mission of Burma remaining a tiny, earth-shaking blip on the musical timeline of the twentieth century. But some people buy sports cars when they reach their forties, others reunite with their old bands. Such is the case with the members of Mission of Burma, who twenty-two years after their break-up decided that age would be no obstacle in reviving one of punk’s most influential, zero-bullshit bands.
The best news about Onoffon, Matador’s welcome mat back into the music scene, is that Mission of Burma sound like they haven’t aged a day. Roger Miller is as loud and pissed off as ever, the band’s Sonic Youth-influencing love of noise is still readily apparent, and their rare talent for great songwriting in the punk/post-punk medium is in top form. “Hunt Again,” “Dirt,” and “Playland” — demos from Burma’s pre-breakup days — are given a full reworking on this album, as if to serve a good ball-kicking to anybody who dares to think it’s no longer 1982. The only obvious change is the replacement of tape manipulator Martin Swope with Bob Weston, who after a great performance on the first track fades into the background with mostly lackluster tape-work.
But please, do we really need another Vs.? The answer is a resounding yes, but Burma is not content to offer us old news. Amidst all the integrity, grit and youthful noise of 1982 is a whole lot of evolution. Everybody in the band still contributes with their own material, but all the bands Burma helped to influence are re-assimilated back into the band’s sound. R.E.M. can be heard haunting “Prepared,” Burma’s softest song ever written (which they actually pull off extremely well). The SST era wafts over songs like “The Enthusiast” and “Wounded World,” and Guided by Voices sneaks in for more melodic pieces, such as “Falling.” Hell, there’s even a touch of rockabilly thrown in for God knows what reason during “Nicotine Bomb,” one of the best tracks on the album.
All this adds to chalking up another “success” mark on the list of music history’s great comebacks. Onoffon doesn’t beat Vs. by any long shot, but Burma knows exactly how to please their old fans while grabbing new ones, and they sound as fresh as ever. Most importantly, they still know how to write great songs that succeed at balancing chaotic noise with surprisingly anthemic hooks. Not bad considering those twenty-two years of inactivity. With Wayne Coyne headlining festivals, Isaac Brock singing on The O.C., and now Mission of Burma’s comeback, I’m beginning to feel uncool just by being young. Jeez.