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The instrumental engines behind Mission of Burma were never geared to youth. So guitarist Roger Miller, bassist Clint Conley, and drummer Peter Prescott, who on their first studio album in 22 years have replaced retired tape-tweaker Martin Swope with Bob Weston of Shellac, don’t seem aged now. They also were never away. Pulled out of the angular anger of Wire and the Fall, Mission of Burma were the post-punk Yanks a generation of youngsters failed to bust down. They suggested motionless guys slouched in the back corner of the endless art-rock party who say nothing so loud they can’t be missed. Nice guys or null-oids? Hard to tell.
ONoffON begins with Miller’s impeccable “The Setup,” a position statement with a hammering guitar figure and tromp beat inside a love song on which less clever geezers would settle for being merely ironic and generic. Instead, particularly during a gibbering middle section that spews several thoughts a second, “The Setup” offers defiance disguised as resignation: “Now I live inside the circle. . . . Where is the question I cannot react to?”
MoB have answers for most of the next 14 tracks. They acknowledge styles after their day, such as speedy metal and neo-psychedelia, but as with fellow date-disdainers Sonic Youth, the prominent sign of age is increased affection for mellow melody, and, unexpectedly for these putative sobersides, overt wit like Conley’s “Nicotine Bomb.” A couple of tracks are tedious riff-meets-rhythm-in-murk. MoB trounce obsolescence because their typical peak moment is a flash of hard truth about a situation, a bolt of clarity about action to be taken. Suffering or joy is just another piece of worn furniture in the room.
ONoffON returns the party’s attention to the motionless guys in the back who have stayed while hundreds have come and gone. You’ve looked at them for a long time and know some of their tics too well. But their rigorous mysteries remain enticing, even to those who have just walked in the door. Nice guys make it last.