If you have a soft spot for subtly baroque songs with a deep well of empathy and passion, this is for you.
I have seen August Wells perform in pubs and bars -- and, in one case, an abandoned luncheonette -- throughout New York City and Brooklyn, and each time, I am reminded of how rare it is to encounter someone with the prowess of vocalist Ken Griffin or pianist John Rauchenberger’s in such modest places. Whether playing as the core duo or embellished with brass, strings or bass guitar, the takeaway is always the same: Griffin is an unheralded talent. Listening to Madness is the Mercy, the second release under the August Wells moniker, it becomes even more apparent that Griffin and Rauchenberger’s songs exude more depth and warmth than a cursory listen might suggest.
From the album’s one-two opening of singles “Here In The Wild” and “Come On In Out Of That Night”, it may seem all too easy to glean what we’re in for. These are songs for the downtrodden, delivered with a rich sympathy and lyrics that hint at knowing life on the margins all too well. An Irish ex-pat previously known for helming the underrated Rollerskate Skinny, the hardships bred from Griffin’s second home, New York, coarse through these songs. Those moments of abject humanity that are bound to happen when navigating a city of millions are captured perfectly in the sparse shuffle of “Crazy Crazy Crazy”. From the harried parent to the rich woman squeezing avocados too hard, these are the everyday sorts who can lead the more observational among us to ponder life’s cruelty and unpredictability, all born from a simple stroll down a New York City block.
Madness is the Mercy is undoubtedly in line with the Lou Reed / Leonard Cohen / Nick Cave at his most somber style of songwriting, but even those who have met their eloquent and sparse singer-songwriter quota will concede that Griffin’s voice is an instrument all his own -- an enormously rich baritone with the most striking vibrato in recent memory. Although Griffin’s influences may be easy to discern, his consistently impassioned delivery ensures these songs are far more than tracings of his heroes’ best loved ballads.
Musically, these songs are spare. Though flute, horn and percussion make the odd appearances, these songs rely heavily on Rauchenberger’s multifaceted playing, and Griffin’s guitar-playing and singing to get the job done. Despite the sometimes level plane on which the music rests, Madness is the Mercy carries with it a lot of drama. Songs like “Katie Calls Home” and “Daddy” have unexpected codas that give these yearning songs some additional emotional heft. “This Man Cries” has a deceptively complex melody and “Keep My Matches Dry” has one of the most unassumingly powerful jibes of this election season. When the proceedings go a little lush, they result in something like “She Was A Question”, the sort of Scott Walker homage so close to the original that it’s hard to believe it’s not a cover of some hidden track on Scott 2.
If you are someone who is not already beholden to a specific strain of almost jarringly human, solemn song storytelling, August Wells may not exactly throw a wrench in your taste profile. However, if you are someone with a perpetual soft spot for subtly baroque songs with a deep well of empathy and passion, then you’ll want to familiarize yourself with Madness is the Mercy, pronto.