[15 July 2008]
Somewhere between The Last Waltz and Live Aid, rock music found itself standing, guitar in hand, at a crossroads. One road was well-paved, well-lit, lined with clean gas stations stocked plentifully with candy bars and bags o’ gummi, and glossy pornography partially obscured on the top shelf. At the end of this comfortable road is a silvery promise of a mass audience, the finest in production technology, easy distribution, and untold riches. The other road was rocky, uneven, and demanding, the occasional gnarled roadhouse or dilapidated diner clinging to its ragged shoulder, populated by the remorseful half-dead and obsolete jukeboxes spinning Tom Waits. Your life is in your own hands on this path, so you’d best have some matches and maybe a roll-up tent handy. You may well reach its end, and receive the begrudging respect of those who turned away from it; but the real reward lies in the do-it-yourself difficulty of the journey itself.
The last quarter of this pop century is defined by this choice at the crossroads, and by the subsequent debate about which road truly requires you to sell your mortal soul to that shadowy stranger with the skilled tuning fingers. Should artists compromise some of their integrity to reach a larger but harder-to-hold audience? Or should they keep their aesthetic dignity intact, and content themselves with the plaudits of their insular, trend-hopping peers for a few days in the sun?
San Diego trad-rockers Augustana, not surprisingly, take the path of least resistance. The sturdy and earnest Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt, their sophomore release on Epic, fulfills all the heady promise of the promo sticker that boasts of the band’s tour history with Counting Crows and Maroon 5. Veering closer to the former’s folk-rock vainglory than to the latter’s funk-pop preening, Augustana never displays anything but swelling fondness for the well-paved highway of the mainstream. The clear template here is the band’s greatest success thus far, 2005’s TV-propelled hit “Boston”. Employed on the WB’s teen fave One Tree Hill, the tune shared the show’s tendency towards soapy middlebrow emo: singer Dan Layus croons with his best Gap-ad passion-approximation, the band telegraphs a slow build, and, of course, the producer bussed in an orchestra.
Here in the now, we have “Twenty Years”. Also featured on One Tree Hill, also referencing the defeated last resort of Moving Back East, also opening with a vaguely sad piano line, also a slave to the crescendo and to the sympathetic string. It is as nihilistically grandiose as “Boston” and doesn’t even have its clever key-skipping hook (one that was worthy of Ben Folds, for whatever that’s worth) or the cornball appeal of its hands-aloft refrain. The lustrous power-ballads proliferate: “Dust” and “Where Love Went Wrong” wouldn’t stand out from “Boston” or “Twenty Years” in a police line, and lead single “Sweet and Low” is so predictable, it’s almost surprising. The “fast” songs aren’t much better, aping Tom Petty shamelessly: “I Still Ain’t Over You” directly yoinks the chugging rhythm riff from “I Won’t Back Down”, and “Either Way, I’ll Break Your Heart” freefalls into nothing. Perhaps worse is “Fire”, the chorus of which features Layus rhyming the titular word with “desire” and “higher.” “Liar”, apparently, didn’t occur to him quite in time.
The road does have its pleasures, ultimately; like cheap, overblown small-town tourist traps, a song or two manages to divert in a proscribed way. As cheesy and obvious as kickoff-track “Hey Now” is (“we’ll kill ourselves to find freedom / you’ll kill yourself to find anything at all”), it manages some stolidly genuine rock-arena atmosphere in its opening half, before it slips into the same overwrought anthemism that cripples the rest of the album. And the downbeat sunrise-shuffler “Rest, Shame, Love” wins some points for not giving in to that easy impulse at all.
But recumbence is the order of the day for Augustana. On Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt‘s cover, the boys recline on a grassy hillside in an empty retake of the Verve’s Urban Hymns cover. It’s a simple thing to picture their label-appointed stylist trudging over a moment later with a brush to sweep away the dead leaves clinging to their collective buttocks. They’ve taken the paved superhighway to rock “stardom”, but here they are, returning to nature, yearning for that hard country road they forsook years back. But the crossroads are behind Augustana, and they are cruising smoothly along to an end that they cannot see, but cannot help but expect.