Almost a supergroup of superunknowns, Burning Airlines reunites the rhythm section of Washington, D.C., '80s punk band Government Issue: drummer Peter Moffett (who later joined Wool) and bassist (now guitarist) J. Robbins (who also fronted Jawbox), as well as Jawbox guitarist (now playing bass) Bill Barbot. With its roots in thrash-and-burn, the art-rock/hardcore outfit Jawbox took angular turns with its rhythms and aggressively dissonant guitars but stayed in control of the maelstrom it created. Burning Airlines doesn't sound all that different from Jawbox; it's a bit more arty and also more pop. The trio forges ahead with barbed-wire guitars, odd time signatures, and Robbins' thick vocalizing of his nebulous lyrics. But Burning Airlines isn't just a rehash of the same ground Jawbox covered. The members expand their sonic palette to include keyboards, extended instrumental sections, and film dialogue samples.
The artfulness of Mission: Control! comes from the way the band turns the rhythms inside out. The opening track, "Carnival," segues from a blast of angry guitars into a rhythm-section workout that finds Robbins singing and playing minimal guitar. Barbot's staccato bass and Moffett's odd-time, high-hat accents are pure technical trickery, off kilter and more. And then there's the upbeat stroking of the twangy guitar on "Pacific 231," buoyed by hypnotizingly impossible-to-follow snare drum rolls. The song is a blur of mismatched musical cadences that move sideways and up and down but never at the same time. Burning Airlines' members are smart players who methodically throw musical elements into songs where they shouldn't feel right, but the warmth of the playing makes it all work.
Feelings are important in understanding Mission: Control! because the lyrics are far from obvious. Robbins' intentions and emotions are discernable by his intonation and the sonic context; lines like "It takes a nerve to claim the intellect to crane your neck out of a cushioned tomb" have to be heard to be understood. Robbins expresses emotions of confusion and anger through his palette of words and the timbre of his voice, but he has a strong sense of melody as well.
Still, more tracks like the tremolo-soaked, slow, and incandescent "Flood of Foreign Capital" would offer a break from the bevy of quick-tempo tracks that fill most of the record. "Flood" isn't any less heavy -- and the screeching noise at the end is one of the most caustic moments of Mission; it's just a welcome change.
-- David Simutis
Back when Paul Westerberg was coarsely howling about boners and eight balls and getting a goddamn job over the sloppily orchestrated thrash-din of the Replacements, no one would have dared to predict that he'd eventually become one of America's premier singer-songwriters. Not a singer-songwriter in the Smilin'-James-Taylor vein but of the baldly confessional, uncomfortably close-to-home variety.
Westerberg's solo output has been uneven. There's probably an album's worth of stunning material between 1993's 14 Songs and 1996's Eventually. But if one were listing bands whose catalogs were a prescient blueprint of the possible highs and lows of their individual members' solo careers, the Replacements would top a short list. In essence no one can accuse Westerberg of false advertising.
His latest solo excursion, his third overall and first for Capitol, is his most confounding and potentially alienating release yet. The cryptically titled Suicaine Gratifaction sounds like it could have been a demo reel, with nearly half of the album's tracks featuring either Westerberg solo or with just one other accompanist and nearly all the basic tracks recorded at Westerberg's home.
As maddeningly passionless as Suicaine Gratifaction seems at first, successive listenings reveal the album's quietly subversive nature. The heartbreakingly exquisite piano ballad "Self-Defense" shows Westerberg at his most musically sensitive while sporting lyrics that are offhandedly brutal. ("Cheekbones and hormones/ Your only self-defense/Lying through dinner/and your rock and roll teeth again.") "Best Thing That Never Happened" at first blush seems like a Dylan homage (and "Sunrise Always Listens" evokes Lennon), but Westerberg always brings it back to his own environment with a signature musical or lyrical touch.
It's slightly unsettling to hear Westerberg peel off a pure and unironic love song like "Born For Me," with vocals by Shawn Colvin no less, but he follows it up immediately with the more traditional "Final Hurrah," featuring the classic Westerberg observation, "You're my latest last chance." And there's a pop edge that runs through "The Fugitive Kind" that sounds like the influence incarnate of Tommy Keene, who toured with Westerberg as second guitarist on the Eventually tour three years ago.
Westerberg sets the tone with Suicaine Gratifaction's leadoff track, the autobiographical ballad "It's a Wonderful Lie," in which he intones somberly, "How am I looking/I don't want the truth/What am I doing/I ain't in my youth/I'm past my prime/Or was that just a pose." The answer, of course, is that it was; the 'Mats were completely about posture, but that didn't make them calculated or insincere. They were simply bastards of youth, playing out their extended adolescence as they inexorably aged and their audience remained young. Now that Westerberg has settled into this inevitable phase of his checkered career, perhaps it's time for us to accept his new role as the bastard of middle age.
-- Brian Baker