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Augie March

Moo, You Bloody Choir
Jive Records
www.augiemarch.com


There's nothing wrong with self-promotion, but it's rarely as absurd and ornate as the biography on Augie March's official website: "It's never easy to pinpoint exactly where Augie March are coming from, but it's abundantly clear where they're not. They're a band apart from the nowhere music that's everywhere and maybe a century or two removed from the desperate bang and chatter of the vapid pop/rock zeitgeist." There are about fifteen more short paragraphs of profuse praise after that, but it's hardly necessary to dress up a record as astonishing as the band's 2006 release Moo, You Bloody Choir, released belatedly in the States in August of this year. (Note: it seems the album's track listing has been altered since its initial release - this is a review of the 13-track Jive Records release from August 7th, 2007).

Moo, You Bloody Choir is a vast, versatile collection of songs helmed by singularly talented songwriter, lyricist, vocalist, and guitarist Glenn Richards. And, as laughable as the band's online bio is, the claim that the band sounds both relevant and anachronistic is dead-on. The album encompasses unadorned folk that seems to exist outside of time, layered pop-rock that recalls contemporary artists like The Shins, dreamlike folk-rock, fragile ballads, moments of all-out primitive rock, and occasional odd bits that suggest Richards' uncanny ability to blend his songs with unusual influences like marching bands and old-time song-and-dance routines.

The quintet - bona fide, chart-topping stars in their native Australia - has been dazzling critics since their debut album was released in 2000. Moo, You Bloody Choir has been predictably well received, and it deserves every bit of praise. Musically, it's majestic and engaging, shifting effortlessly from genre to genre while maintaining Richards' unique artistic voice. Much like a Shins album, it takes intense concentration to separate the words from the music, but underneath the gloss and beauty of the record are some of the most thought-provoking and poetic lyrics I've come across (the full lyrics are available on the band's official website). There are few working wordsmiths with this kind of raw talent. The Decemberists' Colin Meloy is one - and it's hard to imagine there are many others - whose talent exceeds Richards. But where Meloy builds many of his lyrics around detail and storytelling, Richards' songs tend to rely on abstractions and imagery. Richards himself readily admits this tendency. "As usual there's nothing you can directly glean, because I'm not a very literal songwriter," he said. "I'm just hoping that imagery will suffice." With poetry as rich and incomparable as this, it's difficult to complain.

Moo, You Bloody Choir, as dazzling as it is, isn't a record that sounds particularly groundbreaking. Richards and his bandmates are effective because they fuse their influences into songs that seem drawn from the ether, as ancient as they are contemporary. There are shades of Jeff Buckley throughout the album, especially when Richards' vocals are at their most impassioned. On the denser, more produced tracks, the band echoes the melodic ingenuity and precise landscapes of recent Shins songs. As a whole, though, Moo, You Bloody Choir falls just short of being the masterpiece it should be - in creating such a studied, intricate record, Augie March has sapped a bit of the spontaneity that would have made it more satisfying and poignant. Of course, there aren't many bands that can pull together genres this seamlessly, and it is there that their mastery lies, not in any attempt to blaze new trails.

Moo, You Bloody Choir also suffers from odd sequencing, which pushes most of the quieter and more lighthearted songs toward the back of the record. As a whole, it feels a bit too much like an unfinished grab bag of musical styles (an odd thing to say about a record that was written and produced with such painstaking precision). At times, it also sounds heavy-handed and overly serious, and Richards' vocals - usually one of the band's greatest assets - occasionally come across as a bit too self-important to carry emotional weight. Also, with an hour-long running time, there isn't enough levity to balance out the band's ambitions.

It's true that some of the all-time great records succeed in spite of (or, sometimes, because of) some degree of pretense, but the record's many highlights are enough evidence that Moo, You Bloody Choir is most effective when it is emotionally direct. The minimalist, archaic folk of "There Is No Such Place" is stunning, and the delicate, haunting immediacy of "Bottle Baby" marks the record's strongest moment. While not quite as immediate as those two standouts, "The Cold Acre" is almost as affecting, playing like a folk-rock Robert Frost poem: "My heart is a cold acre / In my chest is a cold acre / I don't grow any good anymore / though I've seeded my soil with all kinds of love / that it aches so."

Elsewhere, lead single "One Crowded Hour" - complete with anthemic chorus, spacious arrangement, and slow-building crescendo - showcases the band at its most engaging. Its lyrics manage to approach the most time-tested of themes, true love and heartbreak, and emerge without a cliché in sight: "And for one crowded hour you were the only one in the room / I sailed around all those bumps in the night to your beacon in the gloom / I thought I had found my golden September in the middle of that purple June / But one crowded hour would lead to my wreck and ruin."

Ultimately, Moo, You Bloody Choir is a near-masterpiece that showcases a versatile band and virtuoso songwriter who deserve as much attention Stateside as they've received in Australia. It may not be a visionary album, but it is a marvel of musicianship and a showcase for truly remarkable lyrics. Augie March is an exceptional group of musicians that plays exceptional music. And, aside from the unattainable standards their online biography sets, Moo, You Bloody Choir is impressive enough to meet - and likely exceed - any reasonable expectations.

-Dan Warren


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