New Release: Augustines
Release Date: Today (2/4/14)
Record Label: Oxcart Records
Sounds Like: Gaslight Anthem (NMT, NMT, NMT), Frightened Rabbit (NMT)
For you bible scholars out there, you know one of Jesus' most well-known questions of his disciples as they made their way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi: "But who do you say that I am?" The encounter is told in all four gospels (very similarly in the three synoptic gospels, in Mk 8:29; Mt 16:15; Lk 9:20; and slightly differently in Jn 6:66-69)
So imagine a similar – although perhaps just slightly less significant – exchange occurring between Augustines frontman and guitarist Billy McCarthy and followers of the rapidly-emerging Brooklyn, N.Y. trio (formerly known as We Are Augustines). McCarthy – a dude who looks like be the musical doppelganger of Jason Segel – might ask, "who do people say that my voice sounds like?"
Fans might reply, "well, some might say Gaslight Anthem's Brian Fallon, while others might suggest Frightened Rabbit's Scott Hutchinson or Emmet Swimming's Todd Watts, and still others may say Sting, Bono or Ezra Keonig."
McCarthy might then ask, "but who do you say that I am?"
Ahh, that's where we get to the tricky part.
All this intro buildup is a long-winded way of saying that there's no escaping that listeners of Augustines' past and current work – including their sophomore, self-tiled release that's out today – must first reconcile their reaction to McCarthy's tone and delivery before being able to thoroughly assess their feelings on the rest of the material. Sure, the tight-sounding unit's sound easily points to the best of U2's anthemic catalog and the ambition of recent acts like Muse, while McCarthy's recorded journeys of self-discovery mesh well with the evocative, but worldly imagery of Fallon's Gaslight Anthem or Hutchinson's Frightened Rabbit.
But I could easily understand well-intentioned listeners hearing McCarthy for the first time tuning the group out after just a few stanzas. On the new record alone, the single line, "what am I running from?" on "Now You Are Free" is garbled by so much of McCarthy's chewy vocal syrup that it nearly landed the entire track on my Skip to next track recommendation. Seriously, Tom Waits could give the dude tips on clarity in delivery.
Nonetheless, once McCarthy's thick baritone jumble eases into your aural muscle memory, the bulk of the work on Augustines is simply triumphant. A quick listen of the band's 2011 debut, Rise Ye Sunken Ships, suggests the trio was capable of great things and they largely deliver on the dozen tracks of its thematic follow-up. While the nameless characters in the former reach the precipice of self-actualization in the wake of tragedy, those in the latter acknowledge from the outset that they are embarking on a rite of passage, the trail of identity and discovery. As perhaps the most pervasive narrative arcs in all of art – from The Odyssey, Ulysses and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Quadrophenia and 21st Century Breakdown – this notion is conveyed by McCarthy as a "Walkabout."
The record spans feelings of the excitement of departure ("Nothing To Lose But Your Head," "Don't You Look Back"), obstacles to overcome ("Cruel City," "Weary Eyes," "Kid You're On Your Own"), realization ("Walkabout," "The Avenue") and triumph ("Now Your Are Free"). While the emotional and artistic impetus for the journey likely stems from the loss of McCarthy's brother – and former bandmate in Pela – to suicide in 2009, multi-instrumentalist Eric Sanderson and drummer Rob Allen give pulse to the concepts and are hardly just along for the ride.
Come for: "Nothing To Lose But Your Head" (the definition of anthemic)
Stay for: "Cruel City" (the excellent African chorus pairs well with Bastille's hit, "Pompeii," that's all over mainstream media these days; fortunately for Augustines, their catalog transcends just a single song)
You'll be surprised by:"Walkabout" (while I'm not wild about McCarthy's falsetto that bookends the track – its even more indecipherable than his normal diction – but its a good change-of-pace number with the piano and steady buildup through the heart of the song. I always mark down bands that don't heed by 3-2-1 ratio for uptempo/mid-pace/ballad distribution, so I should equally reward bands that get it right, like Augustines do)
Solid efforts: "Weary Eyes" (a perfect blend of shimmering guitars from McCarthy, sludgy bass by Sanderson and Allen's regimental percussion to compliment McCarthy's smoothest vocal delivery on this mid-tempo offering); "Don't You Look Back" (really a fantastic track in every way with a bouncy melody brilliantly clashing with thunderous rhythm; its absolutely glimmering at its zenith); "Kid You're On Your Own" (the most direct parallel with The Gaslight Anthem's style; the chorus here may be the meatiest on the album); "This Ain't Me" (once again, the lyrics in the verses are a bit muddied by McCarthy's delivery, but overall, the continually shifting battle between understatement and anthem is an enjoyable experience); "Now You Are Free" (a swirling sing-along with solid backbone, but to reiterate, the "what am I running from?" line is distracting; remember Weird Al's line in "Smells Like Nirvana," "It's hard to bargle nawdle zouss with all these marbles in my mouth?" Well, its just as accurate today as it was in 1991); "Hold On To Anything" (wraps things up on a hopeful note)
Meh: "Intro (I Touch Imaginary Hands)" (a little more productive an intro than other preludes, but I wouldn't be adrift listing to the record without it); "The Avenue" (more falsetto, but little else); "Highway 1 Interlude" (an instrumental that doesn't really advance any of the melodic, harmonic or rhythmic themes, nor resolve the collection since it serves as the penultimate track)
Skip to next track: No fatal flaws