Still basking in the glow of the Hold Steady’s Heaven is Whenever, I turned my attention to a little album by the Mynabirds, a band named after a band (the Mynah Birds) that, no shit, once featured Neil Young and Rick James. At the same fucking time! The Mynabirds are mostly Laura Burhenn, who was in a D.C. duo called Georgie James. I know nothing else about Georgie James and it’s not important. The thing is, the Mynabirds quiet debut album (on Saddle Creek, no less. Saddle Creek spawned Bright Eyes and some other pretentious indie bands that I think are more than partly to blame for why non-music nerds get a little nervous when you say the word “indie”*), What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood is nothing short of fucking gorgeous and elegantly simple.
Which is why, maybe, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in a Really Long Album Title is one of the first new albums I’ve been able to listen to since acquiring the latest Hold Steady offering. There’s a simple, meat-and-potatoes pleasure that I derive from how good the Hold Steady is at kickass rock ‘n’ roll. I get the same pleasure from listening to the Mynabirds – despite “having always wanted to make a record that sounded like Neil Young doing Motown” – do what the Band did pretty much better than anyone. I guess there’s some whiffs of Neil Youngish folk colliding with some Motown sound, especially on “Numbers Don’t Lie” and “L.A. Rain.” But to me, what the Band did very well was make aching, Broken-Ass Music. And if you don’t hear that on What We Lose in the Fire We Gain By Being By Far the Best Band on Saddle Creek, you might want to get your ears checked.
Everything the Mynabirds do is instantly familiar, but not in a bad way. Listening to this album is like stepping into my grandfather’s office where the smell of old books mingles with the smell of pipe tobacco. “What We Gained in the Fire”, nominally the title track, sets this tone from the outset and Burhenn and collaborator Richard Swift never deviate – they don’t need to. The album is instrumentally pretty simple – mostly piano, guitar, and drums, with some horns and a few nice backing vocal performances thrown in for spice (although Burhenn’s voice is fantastic on its own. She’s like a more confident Cat Power). The parts are few, but the sum is mighty. Getting back to my meat-and-potatoes analogy: you might think meat and potatoes is pretty dull, but what if you know someone who can whip up a homemade marinade for a juicy cut of steak and they grill it just right and serve it up with mashed spuds (maybe some garlic and rosemary in there**) and a nice smoked porter? My mouth is watering just thinking about that. That’s what the Hold Steady does with rock ‘n’ roll, it’s what She & Him do with the Beatles, and it’s what the Mynabirds do with country/gospel/folky/Bandy awesomeness.
At barely a half an hour, What We Lose in the Fire, We Gain in a Trade with the Red Sox is almost too brief, which is its own kind of accomplishment. Burhenn and Swift are clearly not trying to hide the fact that they’re being derivative, but they’re so damn good at it that you end the album wanting a little more. Which is exactly how an album like this should leave you feeling. You’re really gonna end up in one of two places after hearing an album like this: 1) you’re going to think, “Wow, that band has an amazing grasp of musical history up to this point. I should very much like to subscribe to their newsletter” or 2) you’ll think “what a bunch of hack-assed ripoff artists. I’d like to pull their internal organs out through their nose.” Interestingly enough, people have divided into those two camps about the likes of Led Zeppelin (they had some good songs, but I hope Zombie Willie Dixon comes to Robert Plant’s house in the [living] dead of night and bites his nuts off) and Bob Dylan (who, to be fair, is kinda ripping himself off at this point). I’m firmly in column numero uno when it comes to the Mynabirds.
I could spend all night parsing out the different influences that are evident on What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood Unless We’re Poor Black People in New Orleans and This is 2005 (okay, I’ll stop now) but at a certain point it doesn’t matter. To pastiche or not to pastiche*** is really not the question in music these days. We have twelve notes, folks. Different octaves, sure. But that’s a matter of the quality of the note, not the quantity of notes available. So the question then becomes: how good are you at using the past? Great musicians learn from their history in a way that human civilization at large has so far managed to avoid. Tom Waits is a genius at this. He hasn’t done anything that hasn’t been done before, he just has a very keen understanding of music’s past (and a broad one. If you threw Harry Partch, Kurt Weill, Leadbelly, Captain Beefheart, and Exile On Main Street in a blender with a shitload of whiskey, you’d come up with something near a Tom Waits album. But name another guy who can juggle those influences so adeptly). The Mynabirds aren’t operating on Tom Waits’s level (who the hell is?), but they have spun their favorite records into a musical celebration instead of a theft and that makes What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood an album that can best be described, after all this writing, in two words: “fucking beautiful.”
*Which is why I’m trying not to use the word “indie” when describing bands. First off, it doesn’t describe how a band sounds (but neither does “post-rock” in my opinion) and second, it makes me think of Bright Eyes.
**Pro tip: steam some cauliflower, puree it, and mix it in your mashed potatoes. You get the extra vegetable nutrition, the consistency is about the same, and you can trick folks into eating their veggies this way. Also, if you like cauliflower, it’s just plain delicious. Also also, George Carlin once helpfully pointed out that cauliflower cures cancer. Unfortunately, it did not cure his congestive heart failure.
***I know it’s not a verb, but I couldn’t help myself.