Miscellany: Liner Notes

The Fossil Record
circa 1980-1987 • liner notes • by Michael Bloom
Roger Miller used to tune pianos for a living. Sue Safton, erstwhile record librarian for WMBR, says he used to tune the piano at her house. She’d catch him working on it, and suddenly launch out on some thundering chord sequence or craggy arpeggio. And she’d ask him if it was new Mission of Burma material, and he’d look a bit sheepish and answer, “Nah, something I’m working on for Birdsongs.”

Now I’ll tell you a little secret: I didn’t think Mission of Burma was all that interesting. When I thought about them at all, which wasn’t too often, I basically tagged them a decent Pere Ubu tribute band. I saw them a few times, and I liked the song about the revolver, but I thought their repertoire all started to sound the same well before the set was over – and besides, they were too damn loud.

Oh, I knew about this punk stuff, and I approved of it in theory. But I also know that in practice, it was slowly abandoning its original individualistic DIY impulses, to evolve a whole new orthodoxy – one even stoopider than the old hidebound orthodoxy it was trying to plow under. Mission of Burma was about as weird a band as the punk canon would allow – and the rules were getting more restrictive. Even Burma’s critics agree that, to their credit, they broke up before having to compromise.

What I was beginning to realize was that an equivalent philosophical decline was afflicting the so-called progressive rock I championed. While we fans were busily convincing ourselves that human evolution would be markedly advanced if we could just get more Mellotrons and odd time signatures on the radio, the artistes who propagated this stuff were clearly running out of ideas, papering over the cracks with dazzling displays of technique and synthesized flash. And what made it truly embarrassing was that this was exactly what its detractors had always accused it of. Surprise! When Birdsongs of the Mesozoic emerged, even in their original role as Roger’s studio project, they had the germ of an answer to the progressive dilemma. Where the virtuoso orientation was really beginning to cloy, here was a music organized as much around texture and balance as motifs and harmonies. Where the 19th century romantic ideal was increasingly exhausted as a source of ideas, here were concepts gleaned from the 20th century, or the 16th. If drum solos were a nuisance, here was an ensemble without a regular drummer!

You could glean a pretty good handle on Birdsongs just from their choice of cover versions. Brian Eno, the self-proclaimed “non-musician”, prototyped the kind of sound sculpture Birdsongs were getting into. In their rendition of his “Sombre Reptiles,” Birdsongs take Eno’s concept of swapping foreground and background to its logical conclusion, metamorphosing into a rhythm band after Martin Swope’s languorous theme statement. The odd man out, playing guitar alongside three keyboardists, Martin used his instrument more like a bassoon, as an alternate orchestral color. In his impeccable taste as well as his ragged, self-taught technique, he was about as far as possible from the convention of the guitar hero.

Which is not to say they had no use for virtuosity, and Stravinsky’sRite of Spring” showed how remarkably adept Birdsongs’ keyboardists were. This was Roger’s showcase to wrestle with the piano, which was pretty much how he played anyway – contorting around his instrument like a python with fingers, or Mummenschanz crossed with Jerry Lee Lewis. Just watching him play was a palpably physical experience, and seeing him come to grips with some of the most potent chords in anybody’s repertoire, well, you felt it in your very bones. Who needs a drummer anyway? The Stravinsky doesn’t appear on this disc, but you can hear the same level of aggression and sweat in tunes like “Chen/The Arousing” and “The Transformation of Oz“, two of Roger’s compositions that got left off of Sonic Geology. On these demo versions, Roger played a Wurlitzer electric piano, which had its own distinctive bray, especially the way Roger bore down on it. Before too long, he acquired his Yamaha Electric Grand Piano, which responded even better to his pummelling – the thwack of the hammers on real strings, overdriven just like his Burmese guitar. Birdsongs never copped an academically stuffy or elitist stance, either; they were prepared to embrace popular culture, and even indulged a certain fondness for the trashy – up to a point. The theme from “Out of Limits” reveals them in an uncharacteristically maudlin mood, and it appeared on an Erik Lindgren solo album instead of as an official Birdsongs opus. (Erik also tried for years to entice the band to do “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”) But I think that the effort of prying the musical virtue out of that tune lent conviction to their performances of riffy originals like “Lost in the B-Zone” and “Faultline“. And it relates to the playful aesthetic that made Roger wear his pterodactyl mask. They also used to do the theme from the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” show, and if that’s not an ideal tribute to childhood, I don’t know what is. Nowadays they play “The Simpsons.”

Of course it was their own music that was their reason for being, and the reason for us to pay attention. Their originals were quite profoundly original. One could certainly hear “Pulse Piece” as Roger’s answer to Soho minimalism. Despite a similar repetitious austerity, Roger doesn’t develop his theme in the prescribed subtle minimalist transformations; he just fractures it, to piece it back together later. He also emphasizes his downbeats, which proves it’s rock’n’roll. (Oedipus reputedly used it as his answering machine message.)

Roger’s compositions grew more lavish as the band flexed its performance muscles, but he maintained an identifiable intellectual rigor. I remember thinking, the first time I heard “Carbon 14″ (a gig at the Rat, I think), that maybe they were in a rut. And in a sense, there is something of a formula to this later repertoire: the central rhythmic scheme, the layers of motivic material, and the middle section where everything gets intuitively deconstructed. In “Carbon 14,” single notes are so crucial to the melody that the only way to break them down further was to give up melody entirely – the break consists of clusters and glissandi. The potpourri piece “Laramide Revolution” bounces back and forth between the main rhythm, a feverish quasi-rockabilly, and a formal arpeggiated change in jig time.

Erik’s scores were even more formal, which is not to say they weren’t fun: the circus theme to “Biff the Brontosaurus,” dissolving in wide portamentos, gives ample testimony to his sense of humor. As his role evolved from engineer and sound effects man to second composer, his trusty old Mini-Moog gave way to a polyphonic keyboard. Similarly, Rick Scott reluctantly abandoned his Farfisa for a DX7. If I haven’t mentioned Rick yet, it’s not because he’s unimportant; Rick Harte, their old producer, thinks he’s the real genius of the group. He plays so airily that it sounds like gravity is optional for him. He’s written a mere handful of pieces for Birdsongs, each one brilliant; one of the nicest things about this record is the discovery of “March,” a charming miniature worthy of Satie.

Birdsongs of the Mesozoic is no longer what you hear here. Roger and Martin are gone, and Erik’s on the other side of the stage at the piano (a sampler, which doesn’t overload like Roger’s). The new guys are shaping up to be fine composers too, and I’m still real fond of the band. But this record documents a band that was, by turns, sloppy yet rigorous, childlike but serious, scary and glorious. Hope you like it.

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