It appears that Augie March is finally receiving the accolades of which they seemed so deserving. Their press release states that “they have been passionately embraced by the music industry and fans alike,” and this may very well be the case now. I happen to know quite a few Aussies, and from most accounts given me, the band—while beloved by critics and fans that found in their music something different, something desired, something meaningful—was, until recently, still not particularly well-known in Australia. And they were hardly industry darlings selling heaps of records. Now they are on Sony, banners for their latest album plastered across numerous websites catering to discriminating pursuers of the latest and greatest sounds, an apt marketing technique for a distinctive band.
The quintet from Melbourne—the name is derived from the protagonist of a Saul Bellow novel—has, even in their lesser moments, stood apart from the vast majority of current bands, anywhere. Their work is peppered with experimentation and pop classicism, often commingled in exciting, unexpected ways. In 2002 they released Strange Bird, an album obviously brimming with, if sometimes drowning in, volumes of creativity. While not an overt stylistic change, the album was a departure in many ways from their debut, Sunset Studies. A sprawling album full of ramshackle instrumentation, passages of sublime melancholy and excitingly erratic exuberance, Sunset Studies can sometimes seem an enticingly singular world of its own. It still contains the best examples of Augie March’s unique capacity for seeming bigger than life one minute, and heart-breakingly intimate the next.
Moo, You Bloody Choir is something quite different from that. Released in Australia in 2006, it was awarded the Australian Music Prize, the down under version of the UK Mercury Prize, and “One Crowded Hour,” a track showcasing the band at their most ingeniously accessible, was voted the number one song of the year by Triple J—the Australian Alternative Radio Network—listeners. Does this mean, necessarily, that Moo, You Bloody Choir is essential listening? Not quite. This time around, a lot of the experimentation has been cut out and the tracks have been pared down, for the most part, to the essentials. Continuing in the direction signposted by much of Strange Bird, they have done away with most of the angles and epic overtones of their earlier work, opting instead to sharpen up the hooks and harmonies, as well as to stay within more traditional pop song structures.
In less able hands this could have made for—considering that eight of the albums thirteen songs check in at over four and a half minutes—a ponderous piece of work. Instead, the album is more consistent than anything else they have released, much of it clinging to a similar set of elements: guitars tolling out placid chimes, occasionally crashing into passages of churning distortion, spare piano lines, simple, crisp drumming and layers of wispy, flowing harmony vocals. At the center, as always, is Glenn Richards, delivering line after line of concise, evocative imagery in his gruff, lyrical cadences.
“One Crowded Hour” is a song for a band to make a reputation on. Glenn Richards’ lyrics, less enigmatic than usual, still retain every ounce of suggestiveness. That is, the song lends itself to a single, central reading—that off falling in love with someone you have known for years, an event which leads to a sense of impendent disaster—but the myriad images conjured elsewhere don’t really connect in any literal sense. Their associative nature lends the song an air of mystery, the spark that separates the great from the so-so. Well, that, a jubilant chorus, luminous harmonies, and an organ that sounds like it was lifted out of the Highway 61 Revisited sessions, in this case.
In its best moments, Moo, You Bloody Choir builds on the finest work that Augie March has done. “Victoria’s Secret” finds the band sounding off in the vein of the sublime “Moth Ball”—one of the best things they have ever done. The track, like its predecessor, is reminiscent of Jeff Buckley, burgeoning with rock and roll grandeur tethered to a staunchly literate sensibility. The “Honey Month,” after a playfully jazzy intro, slides into a slow, ethereal groove, passing like a seductive daydream. “There is No Such Place,” a re-recording of a track from Sunset Studies, stays close to the original before the chorus is taken over by a fairly run-of-the-mill string part; it loses some of the intimacy that made it feel so alive beneath its modest exterior. This is the only problem the album suffers from: it occasionally slips into a sterile pleasantness. It becomes elegantly mundane.
But those are the worst moments and they certainly do not predominate. And, Augie March has always had songs on their albums that seemed that way, feather-light, nice enough but lacking in virility. Moo, You Bloody Choir, is a portrait of a band with a handle on what it wants to do. They have filtered through the best elements of their previous work and found new and inventive ways to arrange them. What is most admirable in their work is that they never rely on novelty, instead paying credence to the ever-evolving, ever-elusive art of composing memorable, meaningful songs.
Jeff Buckley – Grace
Radiohead – The Bends
Bishop Allen – The Broken String
Video: “Critical Eye”