Canadian Michael Johnston, who simultaneously makes up only one eighth of the Burns Unit’s members and one half of its Canadians has said, “We often joke that we’re the band nobody asked to be a member of.” Johnston, then, is a pianist in a band nobody asked to be in and of which almost no one has heard, especially here in the good ol’ United States of ‘merica. The Burns Unit, appropriately enough, was born out of the “Burnsong” songwriting retreat (it’s an ancient belief among the Scottish that everything is better when it involves fire), which took place in 2006 in “rural Scotland,” according to the band’s website. Pardon my Yankee ignorance, but isn’t all of Scotland pretty rural?
I found out about the Burns Unit because I was scouring the internet in the hopes that Emma Pollock (formerly of the Delgados, who were – by far – the most underrated rock band of the last twenty years) was planning to tour the U.S. in support of this year’s lovely The Law of Large Numbers. There was some stuff on her website about a new band called the Burns Unit and their CD, Side Show. Never one to pass up new music by an old Delgado (I also own Alun Woodward’s solo debut, released last year under the name Lord Cut-Glass and Pollock’s first post-Delgados record, Watch the Fireworks), I spent some of my last eMusic credits acquiring Side Show, only to meet with some initial shock and disappointment that the Burns Unit wasn’t some sort of sly attempt at a full Delgados reunion.
That initial disappointment was quickly sent packing when I realized that the not-Emma-Pollock members of the Burns Unit were also very good musicians (Pollock is nowhere to be heard on album opener “Since We’ve Fallen Out”, but that song is fucking staggering) in their own right. Perhaps, I thought, the Burns Unit is a sort of Scottish New Pornographers, with Emma Pollock in the all-important Neko Case role (that is, the goddess role). Except Karine Polwart could also fill that role – she sings that opening duet with a dude who calls himself King Creosote. His mum and dad (that’s Scottish for “his parents”) call him Kenny Anderson. Polwart’s other contributions to Side Show are uniformly awesome, much like everything Neko Case does.
The Burns Unit’s website makes a lot of the fact that this so-called supergroup’s eight members didn’t know anything about each other when they met, despite the fact that they’re all quite respected in their home country. Listening to Side Show, it’s not hard to imagine these songs forming out of a somewhat large group collaboration. It is hard to imagine, however, that eight people with such disparate styles could cobble together something so consistently good. The album has its weak spots (MC Soom T’s two vocal contributions, “Send Them Kids to War” and “What is Life?” are pretty strident – she’s clearly the Dan Bejar of the Burns Unit. That said, “Send Them Kids to War” has grown on me a lot – I predict, however, that it will not grow on everyone), but its best moments are beautiful. I don’t want to beat a dead horse about “Since We’ve Fallen Out” (but it’s really fucking good!); so instead, I’ll talk about the majesty of songs like “Sorrys”, which is a kind of lullaby about an alcoholic who has just drowned their last chance with their lover in a river of moonshine. Or album closer “Helpless to Turn”, which features another excellent vocal turn by Karine Polwart, this time with help from Mr. Johnston.
The more I listen to Side Show, the more I can hear how each member contributed to each song. Or I imagine I can; who can know for sure who put what idea in which spot? The point is, the sense of collaboration on this album is thrilling. Maybe more than any other album I’ve heard this year, Side Show has made me miss being in a band – not because it’s flawless, but because I can feel the the eight pairs of hands that beat these songs into shape. It’s one thing to sit in your living room and crank out ditties; it’s another thing entirely to give and receive input and generate musical ideas with other people. If you’re open to what your bandmates have to offer, you can watch your shitty little ideas grow into songs that are pretty exciting. And when that happens, the song isn’t yours anymore – it’s the band’s. Even if no one has ever heard of your band, that feeling is fucking awesome.
So, while Side Show is, as I said, not a perfect album, it is pretty goddamn good and the more I listen to it, the more I ponder its little compositional elements. I will not apologize for the sheer nerditude of it, but I can spend hours now musing to myself over the keyboards on “Blood, Ice, and Ashes”; the backing vocals and harmonies on, well, almost every track; the key change from dour minor to majestic major as “Helpless to Turn” drifts into its chorus (that change is brought off perfectly, by the way. Just a tiny drum fill and then boom. Fucking beautiful). Songcraft isn’t a dying art here in 2010, but it has certainly had its value diminished by the fact that even one person on earth might consider Justin Beiber a “musician” or “artist.” (That one person is Usher, by the way. And I’m not saying Usher is guilty of anything inappropriate regarding his “discovery” of Justin Beiber, but I am saying there’s more than one way to be the next Michael Jackson.)
Most of my favorite albums make me want to grab my guitar and make music (John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme doesn’t really have that affect on me; it’s hard to explain why, but I think it has something to do with the personally transcendental nature of the record. Coltrane’s reverence makes me think about the things I revere, even though they’re completely different things; it puts me in a more meditative state than an actively creative one), but Side Show is the first album I’ve heard in a while that specifically makes me want to play music with other people. Tom Robbins once wrote that it’s risky business for writers to write about sex or food because, if you do these things well enough, the reader will put your book down and go fuck or feed or both (of course, this was in an essay about tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches. By the end of the essay, which I just reread, I’ll be damned if I wasn’t hankering for a sandwich on white bread. The kicker: I don’t like mayonnaise and I kind of hate white bread). Bands have it a little better: good bands will make you want to start your own band, but we always come back to the music we love, hoping it has more to teach us. The Burns Unit may be a “supergroup” of relatively obscure persons, but their debut album has certainly put a big fucking smile on my face.