Augie March: Strange Bird

Zeth Lundy

Augie March

Strange Bird

Label: spinART
US Release Date: 2004-09-14
UK Release Date: 2002-10-21

Where did Augie March come from? The tangible facts are all here: the quintet hails from Melbourne, Australia, released its second album Strange Bird two years ago, and only now are we treated to a stateside reissue. These things we know. But what mussed time warp spat Augie March onto the soil Down Under?

Strange Bird offers no clear answer to Augie March's puzzling inheritances, and that's a good thing. So how to best describe a fantastical something that shuns all logical categorization? By describing things that never were, that's how. Augie March is Lewis Carroll commandeering the Yellow Submarine or, Augie March is Sgt. Peppers' Lonely Hearts Club Band floating aboard a waterlogged skiff lost at sea or, Augie March is the Village Green Preservation Society making its way through the untamed expanses of the American West via passenger train.

By now you think this all sounds sublime and phantasmagoric or pretentious and unbelievable. If you're skeptical, that's well understood; pop music this good -- the kind that summons ghosts from the earth while spinning in its own impenetrable orbit -- is so rare it often seems like it no longer exists. Strange Bird, then, is exactly that: strikingly odd, for its kind was thought to be extinct. Once you've readjusted your ears to its world, all traces of peculiarity slip away as you're caught in a spell, unbroken until well after the record stops.

Augie March may live in our world, but it exists and creates in its own: a world where men and women tend to the morning in white linen, trains and horses abound, language is a hallowed thing to respect and fear, a world that reflects parallels of a different century. Augie March acts as set decorator and script supervisor in the reverberation of this world, one that is capable of giving birth to tales of the Grimm brothers. For our modern purposes, this is all a widescreen, literate pop adventure that owes more to the paisley classicisms of the late '60s than to its contemporaries who have sailed similar waters (namely Neutral Milk Hotel and Super Furry Animals).

It's rather difficult to briefly discuss selections from a top-to-bottom masterpiece; each song on Strange Bird easily warrants its own paragraph of introspection. Still, there are obvious highlights that remain distinctive after numerous listens. The record opens with the slightly psychedelic haze of "The Vineyard", a luminous tune that wouldn't have been out of place on the Zombies' Odessey & Oracle. The autumnal portrait of a society tilling the earth unfolds like a perennial blossom, its melody inflating with each refrain. The psychotic saloon brawl of "This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers" careens at a breakneck pace; organ and piano duel like sinister siblings. The song is rickety and cosmic, its images of "eyes a'batting, arms a'flailing, skin aflame" building into a final 30 seconds of unmitigated thrills. The hushed gin joint jazz of "The Keepa" tells tales of a place "where the gods all hang their washing out to dry", its refrain ballooning from an ominous precaution to grand Beatlesque reassurance. From the Hunky Dory chamber pop of "Little Wonder" to the guitars that hover like winged creatures in the carnival waltz "There's Something at the Bottom of the Black Pool", from the back porch folklore of "Sunstroke House" to "Brundisium"'s sea shanty turbulence, Strange Bird offers consistent revelations within its sequence of miniature epics.

Lead singer and songwriter Glenn Richards thinks of language like a patient high on nitrous oxide thinks of laughing. He delights in its possibilities, its connotations, its kaleidoscopic permutations, its violent convulsions. His lines are composed for sheer aural pleasure ("You said holly-hey, and with a teary tilt / For you were rudely made and shoddy built") and with a cinematographer's grace ("Amid the myriad mangles of the coming dark / Of the shadow of a loon, the howl from a bloody craw"). Richards self-references his own lyrics and engages in a frenzied wordplay that caters to the moment. You really just have to be there, in the moment with him, with the music snaking between your ears, to be struck by the refined, worldly wit.

Augie March takes its name from the Saul Bellow novel The Adventures of Augie March (famously hailed by Martin Amis as "the Great American Novel"). This association was clearly premeditated, and serves a larger purpose besides an inconsequential tidbit. Like Bellow's novel, Strange Bird overflows with uninhibited twists of language and spreads out layered canvases of overlapping lives. Not only a worthy addition to the canon of ambitious pop grandiosities, Strange Bird is as close to literature as music gets. It simultaneously lives on the distillations of McCartney and Davies while interchanging the sunshine of Wilson's California with Dickens' dreary London. For those of us who missed it in 2002, we're given a second chance to discover one of the most massive musical treats of this decade. This is how legends are made, how hopes are sustained, how bliss is defined. You never knew that Strange Bird was a record sorely missing in your life, but now that you've heard it, you can't imagine how you survived before.

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