Early last year, I saw Glenn Richards, singer and songwriter of Augie March, skulking around the back section of the crowd at Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' awesome (in the original, non-MTV sense of the word) performance at Melbourne's luscious Forum Theatre. That he was there makes perfect sense to me, now that I've heard the crafted dissonance of this latest Augie March recording. The distorted clamor of a growling carnival organ, the punk-polka of the second track, the strong piano melodies, the use of guitar for both texture and melody, the bursts into walls of sound it's all the idiosyncrasies of Cave's career funneled into one fantastic record. But it's also a lot more than "Nick Cave: Omnibus Edition."
The cooing AM-radio flatness of the first bars of opener "The Vineyard" seem calculated if not in songwriting, then at least in production to distinguish this record from their last album, Sunset Studies. That record gave the group a reputation as a mostly acoustic band playing slow and mid-paced songs and also tarnished them with the now-deathly tag of earnestness, a result of Glenn's poetic, literate lyrics enunciated for all to hear.
For those who wrote Augie March off as bookish wimps, surprises will abound on this record. The rancor of "This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers" rivals The Pogues in the foot-stomping drinkin'-tune stakes. (Indeed, at several low-key performances last year, Augie March ran through covers of Pogues tracks such as "Dirty Old Town," "Sally Maclennane" and "Pair of Brown Eyes.") Where "This Train..." breaks from The Pogues and also the point at which we realize that this really is going to be a different Augie March record is when Glenn Richards summons a shredding scream, the drums begin to pound, the guitar-amps sound about ready to mount a coup and the "drunken sailor" backing vocalists appear on the verge of joining Glenn in rushing the town square and overturning cars. It raises the heartbeat on every listen, and anyone familiar only with the band's work on Sunset Studies will be astonished to hear just how hard they can rock. They don't shy away from rock elsewhere either. "Brundisium" and "Song in the Key of Chance" are fantastic, literate rock songs that display an affection for and knowledge of what is still effective in that genre.
Things are a little more civilized when "Little Wonder" follows up the stubble-and-whisky-breath of "This Train..." Beginning in the picked-guitar-and-piano mode that predominates on Sunset Studies, "Little Wonder" takes a delightful left turn when a trumpet enters, slyly sauntering along as if in a club scene from a 1940s film noir. Similarly muted jazz tones are employed on the delightful "The Keepa," which musically falls somewhere odd between Norah Jones, Chet Baker, Django Reinhardt and a Bernard Hermann soundtrack sting. The album's closing, mournful paean, "O Song," recalls early Black Heart Procession or Ugly Casanova with its distant screams and cries. There's an apparent influence by Songs: Ohia's Didn't It Rain in Glenn's unabashed instructions to his co-vocalist to "repeat the middle," "hang on" and go "one more time."
Thematically, the album seems to reflect upon the shift in Australian politics in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. With an unerringly uncompassionate approach to refugee policy often passed off as efficient rather than racist, distant and overbearing the conservative Federal Government has misplaced the "all welcome" attitudes that seemed so homely during the 2000 Olympics. On "This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers," Richards seems to be musing on the status of a government that excises islands (in order to deny responsibility for any leaky refugee boat that just happens to land there), while the nation's citizens seem largely uninterested in fighting such moves: "O we will adjust to this new condition of living/ Like a sailor with his hands tied behind his back/ Imprisoned after sailing into foreign waters, unawares/ Accustoms himself to a new condition of living./ But a shadow falls between this hurtling intent and its realization for its government/ Is rotten and therefore its civilization/ Which is certainly not taking no passengers."
The music's unsettled quality seems also to reflect a steadily growing disquiet about the dark political turn within Australia. The mostly minor-key arrangements are flushed with undercurrents and a density that's both enthralling and disconcerting, always remaining compelling and begging further exploration. The lyrics again prove Richards is the most adept lyricist in this country. Packing detail after detail into his wordy lines "They married, a dandy and a back alley tough/ On the foreshore while kids in the needling rough/ Stayed low, in, and laid till they'd had enough/ Of the somersaulting hot roll of revolting September" there seems to be a greater connection on this record between the perfectly evoked landscapes of Richards' pen and the band's arrangements.
Marianne Faithfull, speaking on a local radio show recently, said that she'd not particularly mourn the "inevitable" death of the record industry. While such noble art-comes-first sentiments are lovely to utter and conjure, it remains that records like Strange Bird would probably never get made in a major label-less environment. From about the time churches stopped being the composer's economic lifeblood, rich private patrons sponsored their favorite composers, partly out of vanity (given that smaller compositions were often premiered in that particular patron's salon or chamber) and partly out of an emotional connection forged with previous works. It may be idealistic to imagine the entirety of major labels as swarming with music-first champions, rather than quick-buck shysters, but this record is testament that there's someone at BMG Australia holding up an end for original, challenging and affecting music. Releases such as this need wide distribution, mounds of funds to put into the realization of the artistic vision and, most importantly, a large amount of trust and hope from the label.
Artistically, it's certain that Augie March have again delivered to their attentive and patient public a dense, deep and casually experimental record. That's the upside of this story. Financially, it may be a nightmare for the label and the band. But that, more than anything, reflects a larger public uninterested in challenging music. I guess the most optimistic note to strike is to realize that Creed and their large-profited ilk are financing more than the CEO's new holiday house; they're financing records like this.