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Re-upped at higher bitrate. Some of my 2007 era links are beginning to die off so you’re going to start seeing some reruns. -Ian!

One could argue that Mission of Burma’s first 12″ release, Signals, Calls and Marches, was the point where “indie rock” as a separate and distinct musical subgenre well and truly began. Mission of Burma’s music had the brawn and the volume of hardcore punk, but with a lyrical intelligence and obvious musical sophistication that set them apart from the Southern California faster-and-louder brigade. Between Martin Swope’s tape loops and Roger Miller’s often tricky guitar lines, Mission of Burma may have seemed “arty” on the surface, but the bruising impact of “Outlaw” and “This Is Not a Photograph” made clear this band was not part of the skinny-tie “new wave” scene. And Mission of Burma were one of the first bands that gained a large enough following to attract the attention of major labels, but opted to remain on a small label of their own volition — a move that would raise the “integrity” stakes for many acts in the years to come. Signals, Calls and Marches features Mission of Burma’s best known song, the still-powerful “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” but it hasn’t stood the test of time quite as well as the full-length album that would follow, Vs.; there are brief moments where the band still seems to be working out their obvious British influences, and “Outlaw” sounds stiffer than it needs to be. But Clint Conley and Roger Miller were already songwriters to be reckoned with, the band sounds passionate and powerful, and if Mission of Burma were not yet at the peak of their form, most bands blazing as many trails as this one did lost their footing a lot more often that Burma did on these six songs; Signals, Calls and Marches was as accomplished and impressive a debut as any American band would release in the 1980s.

The EP Signals, Calls and Marches suggested that Mission of Burma had the talent and vision to become one of America’s great rock bands; the subsequent album Vs. proved beyond a doubt that the group had arrived and was fully realizing its potential. MOB’s blend of punk rock fury and post-collegiate musical smarts had been honed to a razor-sharp point by the time Vs. was recorded, and they had fully worked through the British influences that occasionally surfaced on Signals, Calls and Marches, maturing into a band whose sound was as distinctive as anyone of its generation. Roger Miller’s guitar work had gained greater depth and confidence in the year since Signals, the rhythm section of Clint Conley and Peter Prescott epitomized both strength and intelligence, and MOB were exploring trickier structures and more dramatic use of dynamics this time out; the subtle tension of “Trem Two” and the powerful midtempo angst of “Einstein’s Day” were a genuine step forward in the group’s development, while “The Ballad of Johnny Burma,” “Fun World,” and “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate” made it clear that the band had lost none of its rib-cracking impact along the way. It’s daunting to imagine just how far Mission of Burma could have taken its music had Roger Miller’s hearing problems not caused the band to break up the following year, but regardless of lost potential, very few American bands from the 1980s released an album as ambitious or as powerful as Vs., and it still sounds like a classic.

Signals, Calls and Marches and Vs. proved that Mission of Burma were one of the best American bands to emerge in the wake of punk’s first wave (and before the rise of indie rock), and no one who saw them live seems willing to dispute that they were a powerhouse on-stage. So no one could fault Mission of Burma for commemorating their final tour in 1983 with a live album, but the truth about The Horrible Truth About Burma is it simply isn’t as strong as the studio recordings that preceded it; the performances are often superb, but the material on their final gesture lets them down. Mission of Burma chose to fill The Horrible Truth with songs that hadn’t previously appeared on an album, which was a fine idea on paper, since the band wanted to preserve tunes that might otherwise be lost to the ages. But while there’s isn’t a bad song to be found, the best original tunes are the ones that had already earned radio exposure in Boston as demos (in particular “Peking Spring” and “Dirt”), and while “Tremelo” and “Blackboard” were doubtless compelling performance pieces, as songs they don’t scale the same heights as “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” “Einstein’s Day” or “Fun World.” (However, one wonders if Steve Albini was in attendance at the Chicago show where “Dumbells” was recorded, given its resemblance to his signature guitar style.) It seems significant that two of the strongest cuts are covers: a ferocious run-through of the Stooges’ “1970,” and a nearly nine-minute journey through “Heart of Darkness” by Pere Ubu. And while Mission of Burma are in strong, hard-hitting form throughout, they lack a bit of the fierce precision that made Vs. so memorable. The Horrible Truth About Burma is a fine souvenir for fans but not much of an intro for beginners; the home video release Live at the Bradford, shot at the band’s final concert, does a superior job of capturing what made this group so compelling.

-Mark Deming,

VS. (1982)


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