We all have these types in our lives. Those openhearted, optimistic friends who believe that by giving of themselves honestly, they’ll receive the same in turn. From afar, we, the jaded and disaffected, watch them fall too hard and too fast into relationships that inevitably end in heartbreak. We offer commiserating, supporting shoulders but also shake our heads at the naivety, and in solitary moments we wonder with envy what it is like to feel so openly.
Laura Burhenn, organizing principle for The Mynabirds, gives earnest, soulful voice to the unblinking believers. Lovers Know, the group’s third record on Saddle Creek, is her most honest and personal statement yet. The Mynabirds exist in a pleasing middle ground of earnest, pop-infused rock that makes them the easy-listening soulmates of contemporaries like Angel Olsen and Sharon Van Etten. These collected songs were written during a year of international travel and solo performances that followed her role as a touring member of The Postal Service.
The songstress represented here has a knowing, world-weary sadness. She has loved, lost, and yearns to love again. Her plaintive explorations of the vagaries of the heart aren’t the teary scribblings of adolescent heartbreak, but instead clear-eyed observations. “If they say love is all I did/ No, I won’t regret it, I won’t regret a thing/ I don’t regret it, I don’t regret a thing,” Burhenn repeats with a coiled growl on opener “All My Heart”. She asks for neither sympathy nor understanding. She’s just telling it like it is.
Burhenn’s voice is often chill-inducing. Typically relaxed and patient, she lets her voice swell out from the middle, and a smoky undertone conveys a sense of tremulous fragility. But at special moments, she lets her voice flow up and out — the jaded weariness cracks, and she’s exposed, becoming more powerful and more fragile simultaneously. On “Semantics”, Burhenn’s voice slips in the chorus as she pleads, “You know I always feel half-crazy/ A Roman candle at the water’s edge.” On the chorus of “Velveteen”, she waivers between pleading and a whisper, and it’s successful to the point of being upsetting.
Burhenn is the star, and all other elements of the The Mynabirds’ sound can be measured in relation to how well it supports or distracts from her talents. The group debuted in 2010 with What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, a relatively straightforward affair that let Burhenn’s voice expand over a selection of classic American musical styles. Lovers Know stands apart sonically for its reliance on electronic elements, including synth melody and vocal distortion.
Within the aforementioned parameters of success, the newish sound for The Mynabirds is a middling success. On “Say Something”, twisted guitar melody, muted drums, and throbbing bass don’t interfere with Burhenn, exactly, but they don’t add much. The song would be exactly as affecting with strings or acoustic guitar.
And with The Mynabirds, effect is the goal. It will be hard to find a more moving moment in the music of 2015 than the first verse of “Hanged Man”: “August came on like a love song/ Like the way that she does/ Glint of gold in her hair or a devil-may-care/ But she never stays long.” Burhenn isn’t breaking any new ground with her lyrics, but the heartfelt delivery conveys a sort of factual, universal truth that is rare in such personal songs. There is no doubt many close listeners will find themselves nodding along unconsciously, recounting their own achievements and failures in the act of love.
Essential Tracks: “All My Heart”, “Velveteen”, and “Hanged Man”