Tract houses of the holy
The Night We Taught Ourselves to Sing
James "Big Bucks" Burnett has never lost faith in rock and roll's promise to upraise, comfort, and groove all at once. His tastes exist in the 1960s and '70s because that's where his heroes still reside: Led Zeppelin, the Faces, the Beatles, maybe even the Kinks and the Who among so many other lost-to-the-stars Brit-rock icons and never-weres. Burnett--who once ran 14 Records on Greenville, selling used vinyl and eight-tracks (and eight-track players!) to true believers--is a fetishist for pop's delirious jingle-jangle. Never has a man kept the faith so diligently, so faithfully, so purely as Bucks Burnett. As far as he's concerned, Ronnie Lane invented the guitar and Jimmy Page taught him how to string it--and punk rock, well, it never happened.
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Yet there was no reason to think this debut from a band featuring Burnett and company would be anything more than kitsch; what else should anyone expect from a man who has devoted his whole life to honoring Mr. Ed and Tiny Tim? But Burnett and his band--including Dare Mason and Paul Averitt on vocals and myriad instruments, not to mention a handful of guests--have concocted a disc that's stuck in the '60s but progressive enough to be forward-thinking instead of backward-glancing. Imagine XTC with a Zep obsession, art-rock concerned with all matter physical ("Morning On You") and metaphysical ("Elegy for Tiny Tim") with room enough to allow for pretty grooves (the opener "Down to the Lane," as in Ronnie) and subtle rockers that owe everything to Jimmy P. but repay the debt tenfold (cf. "The Spirit Reveals Itself"--and it looks like John Paul Jones).
The rockers in the audience might scoff at the intention (imagine--no irony whatsoever), but you can't dismiss the affection with which these boys make their magic. Ambition and pretension aren't always pejoratives, especially when in the hands of men vulnerable enough to sing in whispers and confident enough to turn up the acoustics all the way to nine. This ain't no cover band at Dada on a Saturday afternoon, but the real thing as performed by acolytes who went to England to record and brought back a little piece of modern-day history.
Burnett knows what the old men often forget: Without hooks, art-rock is just art. Which is why "Teepee by the River" actually recalls the ghost of Talking Heads, appropriate since so many other specters hover between The Night's grooves; the vocals sound like chants, save for Burnett's--he sings like he knows he can't, and more power to him. "Morning on You" is the pop single; "Elegy for Tiny Tim" is a heartbreaking send-off that buries the little man in desert feedback; and "Universe Verse Chorus" sums up songs five through nine if you weren't paying attention. And you should.