Review Summary: An album of great beauty and awe inspiring lyrics.
The sunglazed glare of Augie March’s melodic sound simmers with an epic, mainlined sway that’s impossible to ignore. It’s as though they’ve been adrift at sea for weeks, left to create and reshape their own crooked-smooth melodies to the endless currents and bruised reign of the sun during a trip gone horribly awry. Disjointed and remarkably adept, their fever blisters give them solace, allowing timeless hymns to the open vistas and the end of travails. Yes, there’s the surrealism of the mirage and the tuneful grace of island-sighting. It’s hard to tell to which I’ve fallen victim. At the end of it all, this Australian band’s miraculous second album, Strange Bird, leaves a balmy grace behind that reminds you all is passing and faded, just another midnight vision brought on by too much wine and a salty meal.
Formed in Melbourne in 1996, Augie March has been a long time reaching America. Their debut album, Sunset Studies, stayed in the Australian charts for more than half a year and was a giant critical success, but never saw release in either the US or UK. Melding phosphorescent dream pop with crushing time-breaks and jazz touches, Augie March would find pleasant company in the arms of the Decemberists, Grandaddy, or any pissed-up bar espoused by Ray Davies in the mid-sixties, but these reference points are so much ballast and boredom. Come to think of it, put all that aside.
Opener “The Vineyard” sets the album’s velveteen tone, sauntering along a soft piano line and distant background moans into a waltz cut off at the knees and forced to wiggle across the floor. As “This Train Will be Taking No Passengers” stomps out the drift with its Sam Phillips, clean-knuckled blues, the album’s sudden breakneck start leaves you upended. It’s just the kind of confused abandon that was missing on their debut. And yet, just as fluidly, Augie March sets you back on the nod with the simple acoustic guitar and arcing piano of “Little Wonder”, which pauses mid-way to shift into a dank New Orleans jazz stomp of sweat and stink and foul smoke breaks. The three tracks serve as the first reminder of many to come that nothing need be taken for granted here. Augie March has been studying since their debut. Check the “Handbags and Gladrags”-era Rod Stewart nod on “Sunstroke House” for example. They’ve absorbed it all, from brick-walled Ragtime to Tom Waits to all the open-collared paisley grandeur of the psych era.
After its bewildering opening trio, Strange Bird never lets up. Perhaps it’s no accident that they’ve coined themselves after perhaps the greatest novel of one of America’s best, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Unlike so many songwriters whose words lie limp on the page, songwriter/lead-singer Glenn Richards’ lyrics read just as well as they sing. Combining a pastoral poetic whimsy with a bar-stooler’s weary acceptance of the beauty in the blood-drained wake, Richards’ cryptic moan is an almost criminal act of self-abuse. To call him a songwriter is near blasphemy; this clever child was raised on Anisette instead of murky American rotgut and it shows. Elegant and forlorn, Richards drives the band’s visionary escapism with fireside tales just asking for generational passing.
By album’s end, you begin to wish his Aussie-Brit drawl would clear up and allow his words open utterance. The dark-stained “The Night is a Blackbird”, for example, begins with the compelling octet “Well it tastes like a Sunday / There should be music in the front room / And the markets a’milling / With the people in the afternoon / And there’s a question to be asked / If you’re drinking alone / It’s what horse were you thrown from / Which riderless goes on?” The bare-naked Whitmanesque entreaty is only the first draw of a song that rides on simple crushed glory, full of rain-softened acoustic guitars and a steady loping beat.
As “”O Song”, the Roger Waters shout-out closes the album in a blurry slumbered mash of horns and organs fades into nothing, we can say it. This is the Album of the Year. Or of 2002. Whatever.