The best decision Laura Burhenn ever made, career-wise, was ditching her lackluster former band-- Georgie James--to pursue her own vision. Under the Mynabirds moniker, she released What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood in 2010. That album embraced the best aspects of mid-'60s pop soul, but incorporated enough modern conceits to elevate the album above pastiche and 1960s worship: a Dusty in Memphis for the new millennium.
From the smoky alto to lush production to the heavy eyeliner, Flood found Burhenn deftly connecting all the points in the blue-eyed soul aesthetic without veering into Dusty Dormp-Domp territory. Her sound was – and remains – “of an era,” but has a timeless quality, in the sense that these songs are immediately endearing and able to please a wide variety of ages and musical tastes. It’s a great strategy for pop music in general, but especially for an album like GENERALS, a crafted response to the social and economic mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.
If you want your album to capture the warmth and opulence of mid/late 60s pop music, why would you consider using anyone other than Richard Swift as a producer? Smartly, Burhenn snagged him for Flood and he’s manning the production helm again on GENERALS. Swift and Burhenn work well together, and the two bring GENERALS’ pacifistic revolution to life via dialed-up orchestration, inventive vocal arrangements, an expanded sonic palette that incorporates subtle, judicious use of synthesizers on “Karma Debt,” “Disarm,” and a handful of other tracks – plus a lot of stomping and clapping. If Flood was all about quietly sitting in a pew and absorbing a message, GENERALS is about dancing in the aisles, spreading the word, and how to exert force without using violence – a call to unarms, if you will.
GENERALS is a protest album of sorts – but one with a gentler touch, mostly eschewing rioting in the streets in favor of invoking karma and the rationale that your actions beget consequences with the speed and accuracy of a Rube Goldberg device. Burhenn knows how to wield empathy, as the unbelievably gorgeous “Mightier Than The Sword” proves. The way to get people to care about a situation with a broad social scope is to make it personal (when millions die, it’s a statistic; when one person dies, it’s a tragedy, right?), and Burhenn’s description of watching a scene play out on television cuts deep: “You studied the lines on his face/ He looked just like you/ Your story’s the same.” She knows how to push those empathy buttons on a purely aesthetic level, too; “Sword” forces soft feedback and creaky piano to get cozy for an effect that’s simultaneously comforting and unsettling, and the pacing comes off something like a gospel torch song.
There’s precious little languishing on GENERALS, and when things get lush (like on “Buffalo Flower” or “Greatest Revenge”) there’s always a propulsive counterweight to balance things out and force you to keep moving. More than most non-rap albums in recent memory, each song on GENERALS uses percussion to control the mood and shape your gut response to the song. It works astoundingly well on the playground chant chorus in “Radiator Sister,” in the African polyrhythms that populate “Body of Work,” and especially on album standout “Wolf Mother,” where the combination drum-and-handclap march leads the charge into a take-‘em-to-church bridge at the end of the song.
GENERALS’ brand of political protest showcases another interesting Laura Burhenn/ Dusty Springfield connection. Springfield wasn’t especially showy or outspoken about her political or feminist leanings; she kept her romantic relationships with women under wraps, she quietly refused to play to segregated audiences. Her efforts lacked the narcissism that frequently accompanies activism, and aside from a few isolated moments, Burhenn takes a similar approach on GENERALS. The title track might find her recruiting an army of similarly fed up twenty and thirtysomethings, but it also comes off like a million other “mad about big problems” songs and as a result, it loses some of its would-be punch. What’s far more interesting – and far more effective – are the songs where Burhenn takes a subversive approach to protesting that’s less focused on what’s wrong and more focused on the efforts you can take to make your situation better. “Buffalo Flower” sums it up pithily: “Can’t change the weather/ But we sure can change our shoes.” Subtly putting a shoulder into your opponent like that is a pretty mature approach to activism – and when human rights and economic security are undergoing tectonic shifts and the powers that be are hypersensitive and judgmental about visible, risible protests, keeping it subtle seems like a good strategy to get your point across and start enacting change on the DL. GENERALS might sound like a spoonful of sugar, but it gives you a lot of medicine to get down.