Sympathetic Stupid

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Augie March - Moo, You Bloody Choir

Inevitably, after a nigh-on four-year gap between albums, Moo, You Bloody Choir has been hit with the monster truck that is a major label publicity apparatus.

Apparently, it's their "most accomplished record to date - the amazing record they have always threatened to deliver." And "unquestionably one of the greatest song writers of our time" says the full press release, going on to tout the not-insignificant virtues of producer Eric Drew Feldman, who's worked with PJ Harvey, Captain Beefheart, The Polyphonic Spree, The Pixies - even our own Custard.

But they have a bit to live up to. Sunset Studies was an accomplished, earnest debut; ranging from made-for-JJJ Buckley-esque single Asleep in Perfection through Angels of the Bowling Green whimsy to, my favourite, the extended jam The Hole In Your Roof. And then circuitously to Strange Bird; the album that keeps on giving - almost every track on here's been a favourite of mine. Acclaimed by critics across the world, it wasn't an immediately easy album, but it had wonderful scholarly lyrics and a surfeit of musical ideas.

Ah, who am I kidding? I'm an Augie March apologist; from the moment I heard One Crowded Hour (thanks to Tim) I knew this album was a masterpiece. It was just a question of degree.

Well, Moo, You Bloody Choir is excellent. The previous two albums were regularly dense, but occasionally crowded, muffled, over-elaborate. MYBC is polished. Fear not, there's plenty of nuance there, but sensible production means it's focused; maybe contrast the acres between the notes of One Crowded Hour to the chaotic abandon of Song in the Key of Chance. Or, for a feel of the improved writing and arranging, compare the relentlessly wearing drive of This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers to the better balance of Just Passing Through, especially in the "like a gall stone" bridge, as Dave's drums pull back from the edge and the backing vocals throw oil on troubled waters.

But that's just a taste of an album with many highlights. It goes without saying that Glenn is a great lyricist, but four years brings out the best in him - "if love is a bolt from the blue/then what is a bolt but a glorified screw/and that doesn't hold nothing together" is possibly my favourite lyric ever. There's a bit of Dylan homage in opaque lyrics like "'I see' said a blind builder to his deaf daughter/As he picked up his hammer and saw/'If blood is thicker than water/why'd you dress in the dress that you wore?'". But he's singing now better than ever before - listen as he rolls out "that purple June" in One Crowded Hour; or keens "a heinous, heinous law" in the earnest, fragile Bottle Baby; or the big tacet lift "rise, rise, rise and tune your pianos" in Mother Greer.

What have I missed? The most interesting track on the album may just be Clockwork, an epic in the tradition of The Hole in Your Roof or Brundisium, but tending toward the best of late Radiohead; all ominous guitar soup with buried vocals, a subterranean, swelling riff and spectral string highlights coming from the next suburb. This tone is continued in the practically prog Vernoona, complete with about seven time signatures. There's a glorious major-key bridge before it reverts to its descending minor-key, unconventional glory - another epic, despite not having the running time to justify that tag.

Then, contrasting the genre-breakers, there's the alt-country bar ballad Baron of Sentiment. This plays mostly straight down-the-line country, until the middle eight, when a Neil Young riff wanders in and mugs the song - before Kiernan's piano breaks free, back to wild west saloon style. And the distinctly unsubtle Victoria's Secrets, a heart-on-sleeve ballad, complete with heavy drum fills and plaintive close-harmony in the chorus. And I haven't even mentioned another highlight, The Cold Acre, classic Augie March in the tradition of Addle Brains - but again, with cleaner production and a great build through the song.

All this and the usual tome included in the CD case, to fit all of Glenn's lyrics. Another candidate for album of the year. There may have been some vague disappointments in 006, but Augie March are avowedly not one of them.