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The Mynabirds: A Hypnotic Voice, Radiating Sincerity

Laura Burhenn talks a good game. She invokes Dusty Springfield and Carl Jung. On her new album, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, she says she wanted to "make a record that felt like Neil Young doing Motown." She implies that she didn't know until she'd named her band that The Mynabirds was also the name of a 1960s Canadian band that included Neil Young and Rick James. In short, if she didn't sing with a voice that erases all of the above the instant you hear her, she'd be insufferable. Instead, she's nearly hypnotic.

When Burhenn sings the choral refrain, "I hope you're happy today," in the song "We Made A Mountain," she leaves out the cheap irony that such an anguished ballad would usually carry with it. The challenge here is to convince you that she really does hope the person she's glad to apart from is happy, now that she's gone and singing about it. It's a challenge she meets by singing past the soul-music horns, pushing through the terrific music to shake you into a belief in her sincerity. And it just gets better on "LA Rain."

"LA Rain" is Burhenn's contribution to a great rock tradition -- the California-will-bless-you-if-it-doesn't-kill-you song, whose practitioners have ranged from The Mamas and the Papas and The Beau Brummels to Jennifer Warnes and Warren Zevon. Working with producer-musician Richard Swift, The Mynabirds create a big beat that sounds as though it's tumbling down Laurel Canyon. It's a song that runs you over. By contrast, "What We Gained In the Fire" is a stately, stationary yet rickety song -- you listen to it seeing Burhenn standing rooted to her spot in the recording studio, letting the guitar and piano rise up around her like blazing flames, a heat she at first resists and then gives herself over to.

The credits to this Mynabirds album read "made by Richard Swift and Laura Burhenn." The collection has just that sense of authorship, of a group of songs crafted by producer and singer to create a world of its own. There's no need for Burhenn to cite her influences, even if she may be drawing from the dreams of Dusty Springfield or Jung. It's what she's done to the raw material of her imagination, shaping it into a succession of startlingly intimate conversations with us as listeners that makes this album so potent.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ken Tucker
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.