Augie March Strange Bird

[BMG Australia; 2002]

Styles: chamber pop, cabaret/music hall
Others: Divine Comedy, Arcade Fire, Gershwin

Right now in Melbourne, Australia, spring is getting ready to give way to summer. This is quite the difference from here in the northern United States, where the trees are almost fully rid of trees and the magical chill that fills the air before snowfall has begun to engulf the evenings. Like the spring, Australia feels a world away. To think about carving pumpkins or apple picking in the blooming spring is not a reality many Americans, or Australians, would be prepared to cope with.

Despite all the distance and degrees Celsius in between, though, Melbourne quintet Augie March has made a recording that still moves springtime in the same way someone taking their first drive to the beach in the spring may. When an event such as listening to their new album happens, things don't feel so far apart. Make no mistake, spanning all those miles takes a gloriously crafted and wildly ambitious effort. Fortunately, Augie March were willing to attack such a project, and the result, Strange Bird, is an epic of beautiful prose, pared down melodies made grand, and the sense of adventure that probably motivated explorers to find the "edges" of the world in the first place.

Released in 2002 by BMG Australia, but rediscovered and issued in 2004 by underdog anthem purveyors SpinArt, this album may never hit the top of mass consciousness in a way several lesser efforts have this year. Make no mistake, though, you do need to hear this album.

Songwriter Glenn Richards has taken simple melodies and molded, burned, and smoldered them until they ooze with the simultaneously dramatic and subtle tones that forms every individual song on the album. From the slow, careful haunt of "The Drowning Dream" and "Little Wonder" to upbeat barn-burners of passion "The Night is a Blackbird" and "Sunstroke House," Richards weaves in and out of a huge breadth of instruments (banjo, horns, winds) and influences (jazz, soul, music hall, bluegrass).

The second cut, "This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers," defines the album in its chrysalis. In comparison with the subtle opener "The Vineyard," this metaphorical music hall tumbleweed comes out of nowhere with a shuffling undercurrent that mirrors a train running to its doom. Lyrically, it is a somewhat cynical comment on the state of humanity: "Thoughtful godless men find god in them at the age of 25/but in a year death gains favor and they think themselves the more alive."

Remarkably, Richards always produces a pleasurable, interesting piece of music and a daunting, challenging piece of poetry. The listens it would take to fully absorb this album seem insurmountable, but, like the long trip to a world away, the ride is worth taking.

1. The Vineyard
2. This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers
3. Little Wonder
4. The Night Is a Blackbird
5. O Mi Sol Li Lon
6. Song in the Key of Chance
7. Up the Hill and Down
8. There's Something at the Bottom of the Black Pool
9. Addle Brains
10. The Keepa
11. The Drowning Dream
12. Sunstroke House
13. Brundidium
14. O Song