Reviews

What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood

Author: Matthew Perpetua
04/28/2010 | Pitchfork.com | www.pitchfork.com | Album Review


Laura Burhenn, the singer and songwriter of the Mynabirds, was previously one half of the Washington, D.C. indie duo Georgie James. That's not terribly indicative of what her new band sounds like, however. Georgie James' polite, unmemorable brand of aughts-era indie pop has very little to do with the full-blown country and soul style of the Mynabirds' debut. Nevertheless, that bit of context highlights a major creative leap for Burhenn. After hearing What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, it's difficult to revisit her previous material-- including solo work released prior to Georgie James-- without sensing that she had not yet found her voice. Here, she emerges fully formed with a set of bold, assured songs so elegantly composed that many could pass for old standards.

For many musicians, working within a vintage aesthetic would lapse into pastiche, but Burhenn's blue-eyed soul sounds entirely natural and well-suited to her gifts. The songs stay within the bounds of tradition but give her voice room to establish a nuanced character and presence, where she was once hemmed in by bland tunes and airless production. Since she is hardly alone in going for this sort of sound, her success is largely a matter of achieving the right balances. Burhenn sings with soul and conviction, but also taste and restraint, which keep her from sounding too much like a contestant on "American Idol" or an over-sweetened throwback like Duffy. The production, by Richard Swift along with Burhenn, aims for a timeless sound, but allows for just enough modern touches to keep the album from coming across as overly retro.

The material recalls artists such as Dusty Springfield, Laura Nyro, and Linda Rondstadt, but the sound and style come closer to more recent touchstones-- Jenny Lewis' best moments on her own and with Rilo Kiley; Cat Power circa The Greatest and Jukebox; Fiona Apple's collaborations with Jon Brion. At her best, as on the churchy climax of "What We Gained in the Fire" and the showstopping "We Made a Mountain", Burhenn is as heartbreaking and tuneful as her finest inspirations while investing her songs with a calm fatalism that sets her apart. Although assertive, up-tempo cuts such as the single "Numbers Don't Lie" and the stomping "Let the Record Go" command the most immediate attention, her pretty yet weary voice is most impressive on slow-burning mid-tempo tracks like "LA Rain" and the languid, Velvet Underground-ish "Ways of Looking".

What We Lose in the Fire is over and out in just over a half hour, which is about the right length of time for this type of album. The songs are tight and consistent; the mood is evocative but doesn't outlast its welcome before completing the emotional arc of the sequencing. The charm of the record isn't a matter of reinventing familiar sounds so much as working within them with comfort and grace. Nothing sounds overworked. If anything, Burhenn and Swift present the songs in an understated manner, confident in the quality of the material and the strength of her voice. They weren't wrong to make that call.
8.0


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