City Paper is not for tourists
The Mynah Birds were a mid-’60s Toronto R&B band on Motown Records. They were the first mostly white group to sign to the label, and, incredibly, the lineup included Neil Young, Rick James, and members of Steppenwolf and Buffalo Springfield. The act never released any albums; the arrest of James, a U.S. Navy deserter, apparently harpooned the band’s debut. All of this lore has ensured pseudomythical status, and it is the inspiration for the Mynabirds, the new solo project from the singer-songwriter Laura Burhenn, who for years was based in D.C. Burhenn is a former member of the gloomy indie-pop duo Georgie James; that group’s other member, John Davis, recently released his own solo album, It Was Easy, under the moniker Title Tracks. Davis said in interview that the pair suffered from major artistic differences during Georgie James’ tenure, and it’s now clear that he was winning most of the arguments: While the Title Tracks album retains Georgie James’ formula of catchy melodies and angsty lyrics (Davis loves that stuff), Burhenn’s new record strays into entirely different territory (she doesn’t). Where Georgie James galloped, the Mynabirds meander at a slow trot: A genre hybrid that borrows from the American folk, soul, and classic-rock traditions, Flood possesses a modern sheen but mainly emphasizes good, old-fashioned vocal chops. Richard Swift, a retro-minded singer-songwriter who has toured with Wilco, oversaw the project, and he deserves credit for keeping the proceedings hearty and fairly gimmickless. The production recalls the earnest folk and quasi-gospel of former Jayhawks leader Gary Louris and the Arcade Fire. (If nothing else, the church pews on Flood’s cover guarantee the latter comparison.) But the songs live and die by Burhenn’s vocals: Whether rejoicing or anguishing, she belts them out with equal verve, frequently dominating the various horns and pedal steel provided by her backup players, as well as her own piano and organ. That’s usually a good thing, particularly on “Let the Record Go” (“You gave a real good fight…So did I”), “Numbers Don’t Lie” (“Baby, if you want to be right/I will let you be right”), and “We Made a Mountain,” a stomping, country-western-inspired heartbreaker worthy of Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn. It’s hard to believe that the lost Mynah Birds album sounds much of anything like this, but it doesn’t matter. Burhenn has forged her own path here, and we don’t have to imagine how great it is.