Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Burning Airlines. Mission: Control! (DeSoto, 1999)

"And now we're learning/ About the charity that costs/ But we could do without/ The education."

DC hardcore vet J. Robbins spent time in seminal '80s District punk outfit Government Issue and headed '90s post-punk giants Jawbox before forming Burning Airlines (with fellow Jawboxer Bill Bardot and ex-Government Issue drummer Peter Moffett) at the end of the century. Burning Airlines (lifting their title from the 1974 Brian Eno track "Burning Airlines Give You So Much More" and betraying a bit of their artier tendencies) followed in Jawbox's footsteps, cranking out brutally melodic compositions delivered with an abundance of raw power, precision, and rhythmic authority. The sound was epic, unnervingly catchy, and big enough to take your block off at thirty paces.

Debut LP Mission: Control!, released on Robbins's own DeSoto label in 1999, is a mammoth calling card and one of the finest indie rock albums of the decade, demonstrating the full potential of the DC approach when done just right. Demonstrating an expert command of timing and dynamics, each track is impossibly tight and impressively hooky, built around Barbot's and Moffet's complicated interlocking drum (Moffett is a machine behind the kit, whipping out complex beats and counterbeats at will, playing off his bandmates and forging brave new sonic paths, a Bonham-level engine of timekeeping power) and bass interplay and Robbins's virtuoso guitar lines, which manage to thrash and smolder with an aching urgency.

But at its core, Mission: Control! is a simple guitar pop record, albeit one that you wouldn't mind backing you up in a bar fight. It sounds tough and takes its rocking so so seriously; but the sheer tunefulness of the songs saves it from humorlessness. Make no mistake: as accomplished as the instrumentation is throughout, Mission: Control! is a damn good time, a party record for the fitted-shirt-and-hornrims-set.

To say that there's a bad song on here would be perjury, but there are some notable highlights. Opener "Carnival" charges out of the gate in a flurry of roaring chords and bouncy syncopation, guitar lines chiming and slicing beautifully. "Wheaton Calling" unwinds around a choppy gallop, the choruses soaring and shimmering behind Robbins's cries of, "Repeat/ Times ten/ You're happy again/ Sinking where you lay."

Maybe Burning Airlines' single greatest song, "Pacific 231" is a model of its kind, an irresistible anthem with a hook impossible to ignore or forget, tense and coiled until the sun breaks through at the 1:56 mark. The plush "3 Sisters" finds Burning Airlines edging off the throttle a bit, proving that they can do tender without sounding like wallflowers. Over waves of reverb and clockwork rhythms, Robbins, Bardot, and Moffett craft a gorgeous post-hardcore ballad, marked by a bracingly corrosive solo from Robbins.

I once saw Burning Airlines open for emo poster boys The Promise Ring, and to say that the latter seemed anemic in comparison doesn't come close. It wasn't even a fair fight. Mission: Control! ably captures the potency and muscle of what were some of the finest purveyors of the DC sound to ever rise from the shores of the mighty Potomac, a trio for which power would be a shameful understatement.

Pacific 231 - Burning Airlines