Is it bad to fall in love with your subject? What about critical detachment, objectivity and all that? Regardless, Laura Burhenn slays any journalistic ethos. The multi-instrumentalist behind The Mynabirds—all emerald eyes, sonorous voice and staggering earnestness—is enough to make you melt—which is perhaps why, on her second solo album, she goes at length to make you freeze.
For those familiar with Burhenn’s Southern soul-soaked debut album What We Lost in the Fire We Gained in the Flood, Generals may come somewhat as a surprise: the sepia tone has been exchanged for a blue filter. Instead of redemption, these tracks long for revolution. And while the acoustic is now electric, the source is still the same: Burhenn’s capacity to care and desire to be cared for, transformed, at times, into righteous anger.
Inspired (as well as disgusted) by photographer Richard Avedon’s group portrait The Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Burhenn set out to discover what each of those words meant. There are explorations here of what it is to be a daughter, as in “Wolf Mother”; an American, as in “Karma Debt”; a revolutionary or a general, as in the title track. There Burhenn makes a repeated roll call of sisters, brothers, daughters and revolutionaires, asking them if they want to “fix it—or fuck it up.” While What We Lost in the Fire espoused the former, Generals opts for the latter.
Her militant, heartfelt, frustrated pacifism is set into pop convention, like in the dancey social commentary of “Radiator Sister,” in which you “see ‘em dying in the breadlines, telling prophets in the streets.” She goes soft too, like the Santigold-sounding salve of “Disarm,” with a chorus reminder that “my love, you won’t surrender a thing / by disarming.”
Her marriage of insight to melody is parallel to that of labelmate Conor Oberst, with whom she spent most of 2011 touring. But where Bright Eyes lyrics lumber, The Mynabirds are aflight: Sartre somehow supplies a pop chorus in “Body of Work,” a bit of existentialist pith exhorting that “freedom is what you do with what has been done to you.” Take note and put that into practice, for it’s in personal growth that Generals is a protest record—against war, against lethargy and against apathy.
But more than wanting you to care, Burhenn wants you to feel. She prays for ongoing empathy in the mantra that opens and closes the record—a slow, echoey call of “I’d give it all for a legacy of love.” While talk of legacy might be early, a girl’s got to have goals—ones which Burhenn, as aware as she is wide-eyed, has advanced. Like she said, she’s a general.