Formerly one half of underwhelming indie-pop act Georgie James and touring member of Bright Eyes, Omaha via Washington, DC native Laura Burhenn now fronts The Mynabirds, pretty much a solo project of ’60s-tinged country, soul and pop, who released 2010’s relatively subdued – but very fine - What We Lose In the Fire We Gain In the Flood. Since then, something has stirred Burhenn’s blood, and she’s back – assisted by studio wizard and uber-producer Richard Swift – with a new, rockier record, the protest- and revolution-inspired Generals.
Given the album title comes from the Richard Avedon photo Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a photo that captures (deliberately or otherwise) the smugness of the elite first touched upon by Grant Wood’s earlier painting, it is clear that Burhenn is making a statement with this work, very much a collection of songs of protest at political and social injustice with lyrical influences from Walt Whitman and Jean-Paul Sartre. The best place to start and get a flavour of the sound and themes is with the title track ‘Generals’; a bluesy retro stomp that recalls Lykke Li’s ‘Rich Kid Blues’, which sets the pace and tone for the rest of the record, and is an angry call-to-arms to fix a fucked system, with a rabble-rousing chorus: “Calling all my Generals/My daughters/My revolutionists/We’ve got strength in numbers/And they’re gonna pay for it”. Burhenn is asking what makes a real revolutionary woman, and what is it that they’re fighting for. The record, alongside The New Revolutionists portrait project, is encouraging women to get their hands dirty and fight for something good, but also pays tribute to all the women already doing great and important work – be it artists, doctors, mothers – and recognises their strength and beauty.
Burhenn’s own contribution to this could be seen as the content of Generals; she wants to make changes through music and by marrying the sounds of the 1960s to modern themes she’s bridging two generations of direct action. A track like ‘Radiator Sister’ could have ended up as a cutesy girl-group pastiche but Richard Swift’s restless ingenuity both musically and behind the mixing desk ensures that there’s enough going on – treated drums, electronic burbling, bringing Burhenn’s bouncy piano to the fore – to avoid that pitfall. If we add to this the dark lyrics (“dying on the breadline”) that jar against the bright music, then The Mynabirds are onto something good. There’s no better example of this than on the record’s crowning centrepiece ‘Mightier than the Sword’; a song about the power of words, it’s almost out of place against the anger and pace of the other tracks, but it drips with serene beauty and is gorgeously atmospheric. It sits well beside slo-mo electro opener ‘Karma Debt’, which veers slightly from the political template by virtue of Burhenn’s singing, in her lovely emotive voice, “I’d give it all for a legacy of love”. Not everything is successful here, though; while ‘Wolf Mother’ is a battering ram of a track with clattering percussion and ‘Disarm’ becomes almost industrial at times before giving way to pure pop, ‘Body of Work’ fails to replicate that by being too fussy and ‘Buffalo Flower’ is as uninspiring as its hippyish title.
Generals is, though, a success. Burhenn’s heart is in the right place, her lyrics are stirring and her voice and playing are immaculate throughout. When we add in the contribution from Richard Swift (who, it must be said, should forget playing as part of The Shins or producing the likes of Damien Jurado and give us a proper follow-up to the brilliance of Dressed Up For the Letdown and The Atlantic Ocean), the duo’s musical combinations at times approach something special. We tend to forget sometimes how music can inspire in so many ways – so let The Mynabirds remind you.