Whether referring to fusions or collaborations, co-creations are often best digested with familiarity of the two or more components at hand. For instance, the food grapple looks like an apple, but its skin tastes like a grape and the insides taste like an apple. Perfectly enjoyable, but those attempting to eat it without prior familiarity of either fruit will be restrained by first-time observation as opposed to objectively finding the mixture’s success and multiple likenesses with contextually supported formulations. Similarly, if I had not had a taste of Laura Burhenn’s work as a solo artist and with Georgie James, I feel my perception of her new project would be different. Her songwriting takes a giant leap forward on The Mynabirds‘ debut, aided by another familiar face in Richard Swift. His most recent album, The Atlantic Ocean, was #16 on Obscure Sound’s ‘Best Albums of 2009‘ feature, so Swift’s collaboration is nothing to disregard. Familiarity with the work of Burhenn and Swift prior to listening to The Mynabirds is not essential for its enjoyment, but it certainly contributes to a spontaneous feel that appears reminiscent of old friends getting together and having a grand old time. With the way The Mynabirds’ debut was recorded, this reaction is not surprising.
Burhenn and Swift spent this previous summer in the hills of Oregon, recording what would be The Mynabirds’ debut, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood. Their chemistry was fairly evident from the get-go, and their nightly ritual of whiskey and dancing didn’t hurt. As the polished production and melodic sounds show though, the whiskey was often saved for the post-recording party. Their nighttime listening playlist included the likes of James Brown, Dandy Livingstone, and other staples of ’60s and ’70s in areas of R&B and folk. Coincidentally, the origins of The Mynabirds’ name relates to such a playlist, as they are actually named after the ambiguous ’60s R&B group with the same name. The first incarnation, named ‘The Mynah Birds’ instead, was based out of Ontario and even included Neil Young, Rick James, and Bruce Palmer (Buffalo Springfield) at various points in time. Their work is hard to find, but is certainly recommended. The Mynabirds of today would agree.
Likely single “Numbers Don’t Lie” initially treads in the warmth of an echoey organ, the mood resembling Beach House before Burhenn’s emotive voice enters alongside a series of folky acoustic guitars and accompanying keys. The instrumental style on this track and many others are in this vein, often led by an acoustic strum or slick keyboard melody that finds clever accentuation through orchestral flourishes or in Burhenn’s exceptional range. In the background of “Numbers Don’t Lie”, you can hear Burhenn’s laughter as the instrumentation escalates; it is a reminder of how unforced and charismatic these recordings are, making the context of Burhenn and Swift writing songs and then sharing a bottle of whiskey quite relevant. These two clearly were not sitting in a room and biting their fingernails because of deadlines or lack of chemistry. They were writing music together selflessly, having fun with it, and continuing the fun once recording was over. They combined on instrumental portions gradually, sometimes separately and sometimes together. However they did it, Burhenn and Swift have certainly produced something they should be proud of.
Along with members of Bright Eyes and These United States, Richard Swift’s essential contributions to this album primarily involved instrumentation. There is a resemblance to his material as a result, particularly how the broodingly softened piano of “Give It Time” bears likeness to an anticipatory gem like “Already Gone” (one of the best efforts on Swift’s The Atlantic Ocean). There is also an old-fashioned feel, particularly that of someone playing piano with a top-hat in a lounge circa 1950. The reason for this is the lack of superfluous additives on the recordings, which rely on guitars, keys, and Burhenn’s alternation between caressing whispers and electrifying howls. Like she did with Georgie James, I cannot stress how skilled Burhenn is at complementing melodic instrumentation. You could probably give her a continuous loop of a five-second sample and she could turn it into something structurally interesting. This is shown on a track like “Ways of Looking”, where she turns a simple guitar riff and percussive click once every measure into a with her suave and smoky delivery. Her complete awareness of impending hooks makes moments like these abundant throughout What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, which is one of the best things both Burhenn and Swift have released.
Stream the entire album for free here.
You can also download the March 2010 Saddle Creek Sampler, including “Numbers Don’t Lie”, for free here.
RIYL: Richard Swift, Georgie James, Miss Li, Sarah Jaffe, Kisses, White Hinterland, Marit Bergman, Amanda Jenssen, Säkert!, Timo Räisänen, Lou Barlow, Pajo, Damien Jurado, David Bazan, Benjy Ferree, Little Wings, The Love Language