Fossil Record (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."
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.
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 propogated
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.
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
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.
is not to say they had no use for virtuosity, and Stravinsky's
"Rite 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?
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
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."
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
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.
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.