13 September, 2005

munkey's-eye view: AUGIE MARCH ~ SUNSET STUDIES


We landed here not many years ago
and it was not a pretty song that we composed
La la la...

A reverbing electric guitar on a single chord, slowly growing in volume and intesity. Faint echoes of strange snippets from quintessentially Australian talk-back radio. A voice sings, fragile yet wise: "What do the men say to the women when they lay down at night?" The song swells to a seven-and-a-half minute epic of poetic imagery and driving musical power. So begins Augie March
's gorgeous debut album, Sunset Studies.

Forming in Shepperton in rural Victoria, Augie March are an unlikely, one-of-a-kind band. Frontman Glenn Richards
is a moody genius, rumoured to have been involved at age 15 in Australia's first legally-recognised underage marriage (to the daughter of carnival performers, no less), and known for his heavy drinking and dry, self-deprocating humour. After extensively studying English Literature and writing poetry for years, he didn't even pick up a guitar until his early twenties.

Musically, 'The March' are as diverse and unsual as their origins. On the liner notes for Sunset Studies, each band member is credited with playing at least five different instruments. Lead guitarist Adam Donovan (whose musical motto is, 'There's more than one way to skin a cat,') seems either unwilling or incapable of performing a by-the-numbers rock riff. Meanwhile drummer David Williams (who also plays the piano accordian) occasionally abandons his kit altogether, such as on the song "Heartbeat And Sails
", where he creates percussion by filling a plastic bottle with loose change and kicking it around the studio floor.

But what really sets Sunset Studies apart from the work of any other band, is Glenn Richards' breathtaking skill as a songwriter. From the powerful opening musings of "The Hole In Your Roof
" through the tender beauty of "There Is No Such Place" to the sprawling, heart-wrenching masterpiece of closing track "Owen's Lament", his highly literate mastery of lyrics and poetic manipulation of the musical form, rarely fall short of astonishing. He is unafraid to deal in extremes of light and shade, bold in his mixing of pioneer-era folk sounds with more conventional rock, unapologetic in the seamless mingling of the personal, the political, the philosohpical and the poetic.

It is important to note that part of Augie March's indivuality comes from their defiant Australian-ness, both in their sound and their substance. Sunset Studies fearures song-names like "Maroondah Reservoir" and references such as "a cannon in a World War II park in Gundagai" - as well as subtle but pointed explorations of themes like the European settlers' treatment of Aboriginals, and the continuing rape of our land's natural resources. These aspects are handled with Richards' trademark linguistic dexterity, so while the songwriting is firmly grounded in its land of origin, it never resorts to phoney 'True Blue' clich├ęs. The music too draws on the feeling of the landscape and our colonial history for inspiration, but makes those influences its own rather than surrendering to them.

The flaws in Sunset Studies lie in its somewhat undisciplined tracklisting. Including fifteen tracks and clocking-in at nearly 80 minutes (it was the first ever Australian CD to exceed the then-standard 74 minute format; the technology needed to be imported specially) the record is quite simply too long. To be brutally honest, there are one or two songs on Sunset Studies that belong in the B-Side bin. Furthermore, there are too many similarly-toned songs in the album's first half, while more stand-out tracks are buried towards the end. Meanwhile, the inclusion for purely commercial reasons (at the record company's insistence) of Augie March's successful single "Asleep In Perfection" is misjudged. It is a magnificent song, but it just doesn't belong here, and it disrupts the almost symphonic momentum of the record's three closing numbers.

However, despite this slight case of too-much-of-a-good-thing, Sunset Studies remains a remarkably impressive debut, and - five years after its relaease - still stands firm as one of the most individual, technically accomplished and thematically resonant albums ever produced in this country.

original version: 4 (out of 5)

mindlessmunkey edit: 5 (out of 5)


the mindlessmunkey edit of Sunset Studies:

1 ~ The Hole In Your Roof
2 ~ Maroondah Reservoir
3 ~ There Is No Such Place
4 ~ Tulip
5 ~ Men Who Follow Spring The Planet Round
6 ~ Believe Me
7 ~ Sunset Studies
8 ~ Heartbeat And Sails
9 ~ The Offer
10 ~ The Good Gardener (On How He Fell)
11 ~ Here Comes The Night
12 ~ Owen's Lament

Total run time: 1:02:16




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