Augie March – Havens Dumb

“If love is a bolt from the blue then what is a bolt but a glorified screw that doesn’t hold nothing together?”

There are two trends that I do my best to avoid when writing about music. The first is beginning an article with a “When I first heard” anecdote; the second is the use of superlatives. Allow me to diverge from both when I say: Augie March’s One Crowded Hour, when I first heard it back in 2007, might have been one of the most brilliant demonstrations of lyrical flair that I had ever heard*. The above excerpt—a masterstroke of tongue-in-cheek double entendre—ought to be proof enough; for further reference, see anywhere else in the song. In One Crowded Hour, Glenn Richards had well and truly silver-tongued his way into my fifteen-year old heart.

Augie March

It has been a long time between albums for old favourites Augie March as they return to the fold with Havens Dumb. Is it better the One Crowded Hour?

That was seven years ago, and my fling with Richards and co, confessedly, never really went any deeper than that. I’ve occasionally dipped my toe here and there in the Augie March back and front catalogues, but nothing’s ever nipped me like that slow-burning, slow-building gem from Moo, You Bloody Choir. That particular LP wasn’t the last we heard from the Victorian gents—but even since their more recent release, 2008’s Watch Me Disappear, it’s been a while between drinks. Now, after six years on the bench, the Augie boys have marched back into the fray brandishing their latest fourteen-track offering: Havens Dumb.

Whilst One Crowded Hour might not be a particulartly fair yardstick by which to measure these new songs, it is an important one. That track, sparse and self-sufficient, recognised its strength and worked to it: namely, the earnest and meticulous word-craft that ought to put Glenn Richards on a similar lyrical plane to Australian songwriters like Nick Cave, Paul Kelly and Gareth Liddiard. The instrumentation—beautiful enough in a tender, Jeff Buckley kind of way—was secondary and complementary to that lyricism, framing it without ever really walling it in, so that listeners as young as my fifteen-year-old self could savour and swallow delicious lines like the aforementioned. That, for me, was the rich potential of Augie March.

Whether or not I was on the mark, that supposed potential is only occasionally realised on Havens Dumb. At least, as far as I can tell: I still can’t understand what it is that Richards is actually saying in the very first lines of opening track AWOL, and countless other moments on the album feel similarly smudged by an opaque inaudibility. It’s frustrating, mainly, because there are occasional glimmers of poetic genius scattered throughout (Bastard Time probably serving as the best example), and one can’t help but feel as though so many more must be hidden in the folds—brilliant but wasted lines like huge trees falling in the forest with no one around to hear them.

In some ways it’s a double-edged sword: often times the vocals do feel smothered or washed out by the layers of production and instrumentation, but if there’s one thing this proves in the band’s favour it’s that Augie March can reach half-decent heights without standing on the shoulders of clever wordplay.

The rhythm and structure of songs like AWOL and After the Crack Up are interesting enough to keep the skip button at bay, channeling a Crowded House folk-rock vibe and some kind of distinctly Australian musical sensibility, while A Dog Starved calls on the likes of Ben Folds Five for inspiration. Augie March is a band, not a solo artist, and they take strides here toward proving it.

The bigger problem is how quickly this substance turns to steam. After a strong opening, Havens Dumb rapidly becomes a flat, uninspired and generally lackluster affair. Throwaway songs like Sailing To The Moon and Never Been Sad come and go as though trying to not be noticed; The Faking Boy sits crookedly in the ear; and St Helena’s attempt at a Sun Kil Moon style of damp slacker folk ends up soggy and weak. There is but a brief moment of reprieve in Definitive History: a nocturnal, wistful ballad that might’ve earned a place on the EP that Havens Dumb should’ve been. And that’s really the bottom line: less than half of this record is actually meat on the bones—the rest just bland and forgettable stuffing.

The fact that I’ve written more here about Augie March’s 2006 single One Crowded Hour than I have about their entire 2014 LP might be some indication as to how I value these songs, and how much time I think they’re worth. Listen to AWOL, listen to After the Crack Up. Listen to Bastard Time, A Dog Starved and Definitive History. But mostly, just listen to One Crowded Hour again.

*Until not too long after, when I heard The Mountain Goats’ No Children for the first time