Augie March topped triple j’s Hottest 100 of 2006, but they’re a true anomaly in the countdown’s history. Their music isn’t easy to pigeonhole, even six albums into their career.
The band’s debut LP Sunset Studies came out 20 years ago. It’s an album of guitar music, melodic, wordy and sophisticated. It’s not airless or overly clever, and nor is it loose and jangly. The band can rock, but it’s rarely is it their preference.
Glenn Richards’ lyrics could compel an audience when read aloud, liberated from music. They’re elegantly crafted, but his content’s seldom reverent. Richards also has an effortless knack for mustering stirring melodic sequences.
He tends to be self-deprecating onstage and generally seems like a reluctant frontperson. The rest of the band members also fail to live up to any rock star stereotypes. They’re just a bunch of guys from Shepparton in rural Victoria who, against the odds, have produced some of their generation’s most compelling, intelligent indie rock songs. Here are ten essentials.
There Is No Such Place, Sunset Studies (2000)
Glenn Richards can be a prickly customer, but songs like ‘There Is No Such Place’ are drawn from a reservoir of tenderness. The performance is entirely unforced, but packed with poetic subtlety and a vocal melody that sends shivers. It’s gloriously soft, a quality that Augie March demonstrate to be not incompatible with strength.
Definitive History, Havens Dumb (2014)
If ‘There Is No Such Place’ is Augie March at their softest and most vulnerable, then ‘Definitive History’ is at the other end of the spectrum. They’ve got plenty of songs that rock harder than this, but none with more confronting lyrical content. “One for the mother, one for the dad / One for treasurer, one for the plasma screen,” goes the chorus, implying double standards in Australian politicians’ desired population growth. Richards spends much of the song rubbishing the notion that “ordinary Australians” denotes anything we should be proud of. The song’s final verse is genuinely hard to listen to, describing a brutal scene of violence against a female immigrant.
The Hole In Your Roof, Sunset Studies (2000)
‘The Hole In Your Roof’ was the lead single from the band’s debut album. It implicates capitalism in the erosion of our freedom, and signals how disconnected we’ve become from our wider potential. At seven minutes long, ‘Hole In Your Roof’ indicated the band wasn’t gunning for instant stardom. Despite the long run-time, the song’s rise-and-fall structure hasn’t wearied over the past two decades.
One Crowded Hour, Moo, You Bloody Choir (2006)
In retrospect it seems ludicrous that Augie March managed to top the Hottest 100. But 2006 was a different time, and the youth broadcaster still favoured Australian acts like Powderfinger, Something For Kate and Sarah Blasko. The artistic merits of ‘One Crowded Hour’ outweigh those of Powderfinger’s various poll-topping entries, mind you. It’s a vicious breakup song that tracks a relationship from its early bloom ’til its “wreck and ruin.” As ever Richards lyrics are highly quotable, but a favourite appears in the final verse. “They put me in a cage full of lions,” he sings, nearing delirium. “I learned to speak lion / In fact I know the language well / I picked it up while I was versing myself in the languages they speak in hell.”
Asleep In Perfection, Sunset Studies (2000)
Augie March were slapped with plenty of Radiohead comparisons in the early years, so I’m hesitant to make this comment. But elements of their catalogue do make you wonder what might’ve happened if Radiohead had continued to sharpen their The Bends-era songcraft. But we shouldn’t let Radiohead thought experiments distract us from the unique charms of ‘Asleep In Perfection’. It has an anthemic pull thanks to a circular chord progression, behind-the-beat groove and Richards’ instantly memorable three-word chorus. Augie March would tighten their presentation in years to come, but the rough edges gave their early work a sort of tumbling spark.
After the Crack Up, Havens Dumb (2014)
Augie March ended a six-year drought in 2014, returning with ‘After the Crack Up’. The first single from Havens Dumb didn’t herald any major left turns, but it hinted at some deep introspection on Richards’ part. There’s a redemptive honesty to the chorus punch line, “If you suffer, you don’t talk about it / Which was the lie that laid me low.” It leads directly into an indie-gospel sing along, a la Spiritualised.
Bottle Baby, Moo, You Bloody Choir (2006)
Richards’ routine verbosity has generated its fair share of Bob Dylan comparisons over the years. And ‘Bottle Baby’, with its nasal lead vocals and acoustic guitar picking, has a surface level resemblance to Dylan. On a deeper level, the way Richards’ figurative lyrics connote any number of things with each individual listen recalls Dylan in his pomp. The song seems to address our tendency to repeat the mistakes of the past and also warns against regarding oneself morally superior.
Pennywhistle, Watch Me Disappear (2008)
This is one of Augie March’s happiest songs. Though, it doesn’t stay happy all the way to the end. After opening himself up to “a good feeling” and admitting, “I was blind then I could see,” Richards becomes blind again. The concluding message seems to be that darkness will always return and peace is only ever fleeting. However, the uncomplicated chord structure and generous melodies give ‘Pennywhistle’ an addictive quality.
This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers, Strange Bird (2002)
This is a freak-train, gothic rockabilly song. The sound might run out of gas if you devoted a whole album to it, but Augie March appear perfectly at home embracing the circus madness. Richards’ voice takes on a kind of narratorial hush amid the clatter. He’s the envoy for the prevailing depravity, relaying stories of “fifteen year old whores in training, eyes a’ batting, arms a’ flailing, skin aflame.”
Droving Woman w/Missy Higgins & Paul Kelly, Cannot Buy My Soul (2007)
It’s a bit unfair on the band’s latest record, 2018’s Bootikins, to reserve tenth place for a cover. But it’s one heck of cover. Taken from the 2007 Kev Carmody tribute album, Cannot Buy My Soul, Augie March team up with Paul Kelly and Missy Higgins on ‘Droving Song’. The nine-minute original appeared on Carmody’s Eulogy (For A Black Person) album in 1990. Richards takes the first few verses, before handing it over to Kelly and then Higgins. It’s all delivered with poise and a sincere engagement with Carmody’s original storytelling. Carmody himself described the cover as “off the planet.”
This May, Augie March will celebrate the 20th anniversary of debut album ‘Sunset Studies’ with a handful of theatre dates including a show at Sydney’s City Recital Hall. Head here for full tour dates and details.