Australia -- The New Scandinavia?
Glenn Richards is Australia’s tight-packed pop-poet; more poet than pop, certainly, since who else producing music today writes in such contorted but addictive ellipses as: “If I lower mine to yours / Might you kiss me on the face?” That’s from Augie March’s 2000 debut, Sunset Studies, but from the very first song on the new album, that inversion is still there—when “she takes into hers my hand”, the alluring harpy of “One Crowded Hour”.
It’s no secret that I’m a total fan of Augie March’s brand of smart folk, and have been from the beginning. It didn’t take much: just Richards’ lugubrious/perceptive voice on “Asleep in Perfection”, filled with a drunk’s wisdom, a depressive’s wisdom, like a Dostoyevsky hero. In my application to write for PopMatters I re-reviewed Strange Bird, the band’s first U.S. release and follow-up to Sunset Studies. Whereas on that album the band ran the gamut of emotions, pulling out all the stops (veering into barbed distortion, even) to describe the weirdness and terror of the natural world, Moo, You Bloody Choir is more content to quietly play within traditional song structures, so that instead of the sacrifice of melody for atmosphere, we get chest-hitting emotion, polished and new.
That, and of course, poetry: it swirls around each gorgeous slice of jazz-folk with humour and insight. In the lyric book, each track is subtitled (e.g. “East Melbourne, old money, perving through windows, settlement, an outward looking colony”), like a Nabokov novel. Within the songs themselves, passing moments stick, like this from “One Crowded Hour”: “Well put me in a cage full of lions / I’ll learn to speak lion / In fact I know the language well”.
That song, “One Crowded Hour” (which is the first single and the album’s opening cut), has been on constant rotation on Australian radio for a few months now. It just builds and builds, from a simple, quiet piano opening to a full and glorious chorus: “For one crowded hour you were the only one in the room… One crowded hour would lead to my wreck and ruin”. Tuning-wise it’s incredibly simple, yet somehow, the whole time it’s capitvating.
“Victoria’s Secrets” is all covered humour and self-reference. I suppose it’s a kind of love song, or rather, a song of longing; the persona hidden behind a window, watches as a woman undresses each night—whether the chorus refers to a certain anatomy or is a metaphor for Melbourne, well, that’s all in the listening. And the 1-2-3 punch, a perfect opening trio of songs, is rounded out by “The Cold Acre”. The whole song is built off a major triad, played out and transposed down a tone in sequence—nothing simpler. But as the song tumbles forward, its texture builds, until the repetition of the wrenching chorus: “My heart is a cold acre / My chest is a cold acre”.
After the brilliance of the first three songs, it’s not so much downhill as riding the slow-turning wave; with confidence Augie March takes us through desolation, heartbreak, and fleeting glory. The lyric that gives the album its name comes from “The Honey Month”, all slow-drawled jazz, sounding almost cheesy with trumpets and dragging trombones until a soft guitar echo enters, changing the whole nature of the song. It could be interpreted as a boast: here’s the traditional form, here’s how we make it unbelievably beautiful. The thing is, boast or not, it’s true, as there’s no other way to describe the rest of the song. It seems to be about the loneliness of walking home alone, after a night at a bar, after being disappointed by a girl. But the bloody choir is all of us, and it’s a powerful, disturbing image: just cattle, bellowing in indistinguishable voices the same unknowable concerns.
I’m not going to ruin each of these songs by attempting to describe them in words: hints of Dylan (especially on Richards’s vocals on “Bottle Baby”), classic rock-n-roll harmonies, and swing jazz rhythms are vital to these songs, but never overwhelm their sense of fresh perspective. Just one example, from “Clockwork”: when Richards sings “Don’t touch me, babe, I / Don’t remember ever liking that”, the sense of alienation is total and complete—I don’t remember getting that from a song in a long time.
Someone pointed out to me, after hearing “One Crowded Hour” for the first time, that it doesn’t have much of a chorus. By then I had listened to the song so often that its slow-burn build to transcendence was something I took for granted. But when I thought back to my first time, I probably felt the same exact thing—it’s a chorus that alternates, with remarkably small steps, above and below the third of the scale. That is, really, Augie March’s valuable contribution: In confining themselves to familiar pop forms, and even limiting the actual notes they are using, they create music so beautiful and bursting with emotion that, after hearing it just a few times, it’s impossible to ignore.
This CD is incredible. It’s still in my CD player. I can’t foresee it coming out in a long time.