[30 May 2011]
PopMatters Events Editor
Sometimes the American rock dream isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Just ask Augustana. The San Diego rock outfit saw moderate success in 2005 with their piano-driven ballad “Boston”, which cracked the top 40, got some play on various television programs, and featured an accessible sound much in the vein of the Fray or Coldplay. Unfortunately, the single did little to propel their debut album, All the Stars and Boulevards, to success. Three years later, the band followed up with Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt, an album packed with even more radio friendly rock, only to find themselves even further from the mainstream spotlight. Perhaps, then, it comes as no surprise that the band has abandoned all ships in favor of a new sound. Unfortunately, the same problem as before remains—Augustana is mired in mediocrity.
On Augustana, the band does their best to channel their inner Springsteen, offering up a batch of throw-back soft rock numbers that regularly build slowly into big choruses. Gone are the numerous piano ballads and edge-of-emo vocals from singer Dan Layus. In this latest effort, the band seeks a different kind of simplicity. You could select any track from Augustana and get a good feel for what this album has to offer. Sure, the band delves into an alt-country sound on the twangy “Hurricane”, and even gives a short-but-sweet-almost-guitar solo on the shockingly ‘80s sounding “Just Stay Here Tonight”, but overall, the band follows a formula that becomes all too familiar by the album’s end.
The opening track “Steal Your Heart” serves as exhibit A. The song starts off mellow with crisp, clean vocals from Layus as the track begins to blossom into its gigantic chorus. In fact, the band pulls off the sound so convincingly that you might even find yourself singing along before you begin to question why you’re continuing to repeat the line “I’m gonna steal your heart / Gonna steal your heart away”. Where the song excels in execution, it lacks majorly in depth. Augustana tries again on the next track “Wrong Side of Love” with similar results, and by the time Layus sings the cringe inducing lines “Well, sinners sin with the saints / And givers give what they take / Oh, and lovers love what you hate / Man, I know it’s never too late” on “Hurricane”, you might find yourself wondering if the band is attempting to sabotage itself with poor songwriting.
Fortunately, all hope is not lost on Augustana. The band sounds fantastic on “Counting Stars”, a slow number featuring a brilliantly catchy chorus. “Borrowed Time” includes lovely acoustic guitar sounds, and “Shot in the Dark” displays more impressive lyrics from Layus. The band is truly at their best when they step away from the formulaic approach that pervades so much of this album. As cliché as it may seem, it’s in the moments that the band appears to stop trying so hard to pull of a particular sound that they truly shine brightest. Sadly, those moments are not prevalent enough on Augustana.
You get the feeling from listening to this album that Augustana would do a remarkable job covering the Boss or even Soul Asylum. The painful reality is that the band is not as talented as the artists that are obviously influencing their current work. Instead of listening to their new album, you’d be just as well to turn the dial to the nearest A/C soft rock station and enjoy the music that enabled bands like Augustana to pursue a career. There’s obviously talent lying somewhere within this band. Whether they’re able to find their niche and create a sound that best exemplifies those talents in the future remains to be seen. In the meantime, we’ll have to cope with another unfulfilling outing from Augustana.