April 2006

Music

The exford dregs

By Robert Forster
Augie March’s ‘Moo, You Bloody Choir’

In the narrow confines of the Australian music scene, it’s edgy guitar pop and rock for the young, and country, blues and folk for the old. AC/DC is revered by all. It’s not hard to stand outside this world; the trick is to construct something substantial while you’re there. Augie March does it with a particularly Melburnian blend of deep and heavy lyric and a woozy take on the big rock song. The effect is romantic. It’s music from the lighthouse. Five boys are up there, in mid-Victorian rags for all we know, and they’re onto their third album. Moo, You Bloody Choir is its awkward yet distinctive title.

The band is led by Glenn Richards. He sings and writes the songs, and he has a great voice: high and pure on the album’s many mid-tempo numbers, and a snarling rasp when he rocks. The songs are huge. Whether Richards is writing out of sheer ambition, or just decided on a whim to write them this way, does not matter. They’re done in CinemaScope, and in great detail. With titles like ‘Mt Wellington Reverie’, ‘Bolte and Dunstan Talk Youth’ and ‘Thin Captain Crackers’, it’s a long way from I-want-you-baby, or any of rock’s other generic combinations that songwriters good and bad have thrown together over the years.

The instrumentation is sympathetic without being startling. The band members thankfully eschew much of the exotica that can creep into songs like these, carrying them off into Tom Waits territory. There are no glockenspiels, hammers hitting tins, or late-’60s Moog synths. Instead, the band supplies quality essentials: drums, bass, acoustic and electric guitars, and keyboards. They play them well, sneaking around Richards and his lyrics because, except for a few introductions and some arrangements in the fades, there’s not room for anyone to do much. This is a lyric-focused album, requiring only a pretty but steady rendering of the melodies.

Richards describes himself as “not a very literal songwriter. I am just hoping that imagery will suffice.” Narrative could be his weakness. But is a good story necessary? Here’s the first verse of ‘Victoria’s Secret’:

O how my great liberal heart labours

With the piss in my rivers and gall

Before gleaming ceremonial sabres

Who falls on them falls for us all …

It’s lovely language – and perhaps an injustice to haul out sections of Richards’ imagery and lay them on the page for dissection.

The enigmatic chorus follows:

Every night I pick the locks

On that white Victorian box

Every night I pick the locks and

The gaolers say…

And it runs straight into the second verse:

Some nights when I look through her window

And she seems an old lover to me

There peeling off her black nylon knee-highs

And yielding her breast to the sea …

There’s a faint logic to it, and plenty of atmosphere and thought. But it’s also exasperating, because most of the songs work on this level: a heroic mixture of deep, poetic language and misty meaning. It can work in bursts. But when simpler lines pop out one thirsts for more: When I woke up it was dark / Lying on my side in the parliament park (‘Bolte And Dunstan Talk Youth’); But when a dog knows it’s on him / He doesn’t ask why he just goes (‘The Cold Acre’). Beautiful lines, and they talk to each other.

Two good songs especially suffer. ‘Mother Greer’ is addressed to Germaine Greer. It’s a fantastic idea, and a sly title. A simple country swing nicely offsets the pangs of male guilt. But one yearns to be taken further, for a knockout-punch of a line to suddenly ring the many connections the song establishes. And ‘Bottle Baby’ is a lone-guitarist–at-the-back-of-the-pub song. After many listens and much struggling, I know it’s set in the past. Injustice, drink, rebellion and resignation are involved. But I need a story, or the images to be more direct, for it to hit home. The best lyricists – Morrissey, Dylan, Cocker (Jarvis) – know the value of a simple line, and its usefulness in bringing the audience with them.

Moo, You Bloody Choir is 66 minutes long. Five really good songs come out with a gun. ‘The Cold Acre’, a wrenching tale of impending death, an old man and a dog, is magnificent. Richards skips nicely around musical genres; there’s a hint of country, but largely it’s roots-free. There are all the shades that can be wrung out of melodic rock: anthems, pop, narcotic marches and ballads. Nothing too trendy in construction or sound. Most of these songs could have been written any time over the last twenty-five years, which doesn’t for a second slight their ambition.

Of the 14 songs, most hang at the five-minute mark. ‘Clockwork’ and ‘Honey Month’ are the epics that push longer. Neither is entirely successful, which is surprising given Richards’ melodic gift and his taste for the grand. Both work on weak riffs and, in the case of ‘Honey Month’, a sluggish tempo. To take a song towards seven minutes you need a great tune. The image-maze of the lyrics also gets exposed over this distance. ‘Clockwork’, with its creaky connection to time, is the one track where Richards’ use of metaphor, usually so deft, courts triteness.

The production is in the Australian style, which always leans to the natural. Two tracks recorded abroad, ‘One Crowded Hour’ and ‘Just Passing Through’, hint at where things could go. Richards and his cohorts, budget allowing, would make a great album overseas. In the US, Dave Fridmann, producer of Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips, would be a contender; in England, someone like John Leckie, with his spacey, adventurous deconstructions, would be fascinating to hear. There’s no doubt that Richards is a world-class singer-songwriter, and it would be very satisfying to see Augie March have a shot with major-league assistance.

This is a good album. A better one lies in its bones: 66 minutes is simply too long. There are four production credits; perhaps it fell to no one to tug it all into place. One producer, with the band’s trust and the right vision, would at least have broached the subject of the audience’s endurance – and perhaps suggested that a magnum opus doesn’t always wear grand garments.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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