There was an incident at The Mynabirds' June 17 show at Chicago's Schuba's Tavern. It involved police, a high-speed chase and the fox headdress that motherbird Laura Burhenn wears nightly during performances.
"Some guy stole it off the stage," says Burhenn via phone the following afternoon, the L train rattling in the background. "Our guitarist actually went running after him down the dark alleyways. The cops were involved, and they got it back — they nabbed him, and we all hugged it out in the end. Poor kid. He was shaking in the cop car in handcuffs."
It's not that Burhenn's a softie or anything, feeling sympathy for the ones who've done her wrong. But that desire to see peaceful endings to discord and conflict is an attitude drives The Mynabirds' second album, Generals. A protest record, it's fueled by frustration over the political climate, reflections on 9/11 and the takeaway that maybe the best way to overcome tragedy and helplessness is through good, old-fashioned love.
"I'm a pacifist, and trying to write a protest record as one is hard," says Burhenn. "I was thinking about everything that's wrong around us and what we can do. I wanted to take some time to get angry and voice what I was angry about, make sense of it and turn it into something more positive."
Generals opens with "Karma Debt," a burning exploration into the parasitic nature of American greed with an echoing cry: "I'd give it all for a legacy of love," Burhenn sings, laying out the crucial takeaway of the record. The song glides in slowly like a heavy cloud of smoke, the refrain brief breaks of sunlight.
It was hard for Burhenn to find a way to translate all this discontent into something actionable. "I was asking all these questions writing the record," she says, "and I had no idea [how to answer them]. Then I realized, maybe love is the best answer. At first I thought, 'I can't say that, I'm going to sound like an idiot.' But no, there's something really profound in that and important to say out loud."
Burhenn's path to this point began more than 10 years ago, when she started writing the album's closer, "Greatest Revenge," after picking up her then-boyfriend in New York just after Sept. 11. "I remember driving though southern Manhattan when it was still smoking," she says. "At the same time, it was beautiful out — the most beautiful fall we'd ever had. That dichotomy, to me, is at the heart of where we are in American history. There is a lot of tragedy, but there are so many beautiful things all around us, too."
Don't think for a minute, though, that this is a record of flowers and peace signs — it's direct, angry as hell and just as vibrant, infusing Afro-pop, hip-hop and heavy electronic boomers into Burhenn's smart and sardonic songwriting. The centerpiece, "Generals," is a war cry to a marching doo-wop drumbeat: "Calling all my generals, my daughters, my revolutionists, we got strength in numbers," she commands. The song and record title were inspired by Richard Avedon's photograph "Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution" and touch heavily on the battles Burhenn has fought as a woman — the album reflecting the spirit of true female revolutionaries, not the elitists in petticoats Avedon depicts.
"This year I have really come to own being a feminist," Burhenn says. "It's crazy how many times I walk into a venue to introduce myself to the sound guy and they say, 'Oh, are you the merch girl?' "
Burhenn certainly wont get that reception when she hits The High Watt for The Mynabirds' show. She has developed a passion for Nashville via members of her live band, locals Nicole Childrey (née Keiper, a former Tennessean writer and an occasional Scene contributor) and Patrick Damphier (also of Field Days), and through her Saddle Creek labelmate PUJOL.
"Our bandmates love Nashville," Childrey says. "They fell in love with Mas Tacos when we were in town for the Ryman show last year [opening for Bright Eyes], so that's now a must."
Burhenn confirms. "I should talk about the musical history of Nashville, but here I am talking about food," she says. It's OK. Even revolutionaries gotta eat.