No Hits 1.23.06
If Augie March's 2002 album Strange Bird (US, UK) had been released by a North American or British band, it would have been hailed an underground rock masterpiece on the order of OK Computer, In The Aeroplane Over the Sea or Funeral. Critics would have melted in puddles of praise, hipsters would have adopted "strange bird" as their tribal password, record company scouts would have suffered bad opening acts in the hope of spotting "the next Augie March." As it is, the band is virtually unknown outside its native Australia (I had to get the tip from an actual Australian--thanks, Josh!). And while some critics took notice in 2004 when SpinART released the record stateside, this phantasmagorical rock symphony ranked a measly 298 on Pazz and Jop at year-end, because most people never heard it.
I've been living with Bird for a couple weeks and feel I've only scratched the surface of a record whose references to pop, rock and even jazz and blues history come fast and hard, yet never, amazingly, overwhelm it. As I always do with new records--even with these thematically cohesive things known as "concept albums"--I've parsed it into pieces I can wrap my arms around and study affectionately until I feel I understand it at least a little. In other words, I've listened to one track over and over. "Little Wonder" is my favorite cut at the moment, but it may not be so two weeks, two months or two years down the road. Right now, though, the mournful tom, followed by lullaby soft vocals, arpeggiated guitar and gentle piano accompaniment that minutes later breaks down into a trumpet-led jazz tangent, unruly clapping beats and a swelling reprise of the chorus is...simply swoonworthy. Then there are the hyper-literate lyrics that in their love of dense language and storytelling are calculated to charm poetry and prose lovers alike (songwriter Glenn Richards clearly knows his T.S. Eliot):
O brother don't clean out your ears and you might be amazed
to find the secrets of the city in its alley ways,
In the bins behind the swill cafes,
amid the clean-picked chicken bones and cartilage
a spirit groans, a small heart beats and a red beak groans
"Oh pity, where's my little body gone?"
"Little Wonder" is just the tip of a vast, unexplored continent. Without spreading itself too thin, Bird offers something for everyone--sprawling psychedelic guitar epics, stark banjo-driven ballads, jazzy interludes, even a haunting hymn. To give you an idea of its diversity, listen to "This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers," a swaggering barnburner that marks the most energizing moment on the album.
This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers - Augie March
If my praise sounds uncharacteristically effusive and oddly unreserved (I admit, I usually hedge a bit), it's because Augie March deserves it. The only thing that confuses me is why an Australian band would name itself after Saul Bellow's "great American novel." I put that in quotes because I find Bellow to be rather dreary myself. Just this weekend I was discussing with a friend how I've never been able to get more than 100 pages into any of Bellow's books--The Adventures of Augie March (US, UK) included. And that's despite the fact that that novel inspired one of my favorites, Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes (US, UK).
Anyway. I don't know what's on your buy list right now, but put Strange Bird at the top. And if you're a fiction reader, check out the underappreciated classic A Fan's Notes.