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This Bird Has Flown

Augie March
Strange Bird (SpinArt)

It’s both fitting and unfortunate that Australian quintet Augie March chose to title their stateside debut album Strange Bird (it’s their second LP overall). True, this is a band who suck the musical marrow from the tired old bones of classic pop, folk, and country; their pastures shimmer with droplets of trumpets and violins. Surely, there are a great many vaguely rustic, bookish couplets to be discovered within the expansive lyric booklet (an “index of first lines” is included, which suggests that we’re dealing with a bunch of well-read wiseasses here). But, for all the great references (both musical and historical), this bird, while quite strange and occasionally very beautiful, is not particularly interesting in whole.

The first half of Strange Bird, in which Augie March’s stylistic gamut reveals itself one song at a time, is strong enough to warrant great praise. “The Vineyard” lumbers like a ’luded, half-speed XTC, revolving ’round a simple melody and juicing things up with orchestral pomp and group vocals. “This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers” heaves along with all the coal-engine-fueled locomotion of its titular object; “Song in the Key of Chance” is a blustery sea chantey sung from a barstool pulpit, like the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne fronting the Bad Seeds. “Little Wonder” and “The Night Is a Blackbird” are hair-on-back-of-neck-raisingly lovely, evoking vintage Bee Gees and Nick Drake. Although, at first aural instinct, it might seem that the tag of Lips-knockoff would be appropriate, Augie March are more directly descended from the bygone-era slack-rock set (Pavement, Radar Bros), and it’s the “If you don’t get it, too bad” spirit that carries the wonderful first act.

The act grows old as the album progresses, however: The only useful cuts on side two are the Richard Thompson-via-Will Oldham waltz “Sunstroke House” and the first 15 seconds of “Addle Brains,” which, looped, would make a great De La Soul track (melt down the remaining five minutes for scrap, though). There’s a picaresque quality to much of singer-guitarist Glenn Richards’ lyric writing, in line with the Saul Bellow novel from which the band take their name, but it comes off as grad-school-cred-building vocabular masturbation, and it can be inaccessible to a fault. By its tail end, Strange Bird begins to sound like a book on tape with a well-constructed music bed. See, the lyrics are often verbose to the point of no entry, and without strong melodic movement, they’re just words, and words are all they have to take our hearts away. And come on, “The Night Is a Blackbird”? That’s as crap a metaphor as ever there has been. OK, that’s a cheap shot, since the song sharply outs itself as one of the more concise narratives in the collection, but the truth of the matter is that if these cats had managed to think up melodies half as interesting as lines like “They married, a dandy and a back alley tough, on the foreshore while kids in the needling rough, stayed low, in, and laid till they’d had enough of the somersaulting hot roll of revolting September,” this Bird truly could have soared.

—John Brodeur

Fear Factory
Archetype (Liquid 8)

The musicians have tremendous musical prowess, yet it’s as if a vital stone remains missing from the olde foundation, one that exposes the band to all sorts of corrosive elements and erosion. Fear Factory have always been about infusing blunt-force riffage with snarfy synthesizers and Burton Bell’s ethereal, goth-style vocals. What do I know about goth? Nothing, but I know a guy who listens to Sisters of Mercy when I hear him. If you already love the band, chances are you will like Archetype. And I am concerned. The band claim to be the first and the best at what they do, but I can never fully grasp exactly what “it” is, aside from slightly unnerving in a “Where is that damn knocking coming from?” manner.

The outstanding themes of the disc are wrapped in very well-worn analogies (likening corporate America’s infectious, murderous growth to clinical and pathological reproduction techniques in “Corporate Cloning,” for example), yet thankfully the topic matter remains relevant and sometimes engaging. Sometimes a little tired, too. “Slave Labor” is the song all bands write sooner or later about the recording industry. The insolent “Archetype,” on the other hand, seems to make a more complex request of the listener, the interior angles not so readily apparent. In it, vocalist Burton Bell’s seemingly simple command to “open your eyes!” appears to reference the Jungian archetypes, those shared tenets of universal unconscious that behave according to the same laws throughout human history. If the mind is merely a subdirectory of the root directory, Bell calls for the courage to look past our unique historical experience toward universal patterns to gain greater knowledge of self. What is interesting is that, having drawn attention to the phenomenon, it becomes clear that each song—be it about discrimination, warfare or technology—steadfastly assesses the underlying archetypal behaviors. And that’s pretty freakin’ cool, especially if you care to read even further into Jung’s theories on psyche and symbolism. But the musical grids traversed by the band do precious little to permanently stamp such ideas on the brain and in the gut in a meaningful way, although I must admit that (after 24 listens) Archetype would be slightly more approachable than I originally held, if not for one powerful exception.

Ever since Louie Bellson added an additional bass drum to his jazz kit in the late 1930s, there have been legions of men (especially in metal, of course) who became compelled to overpower any remnant of musical taste by galloping out scores of complex, ridiculous bass drum runs. I say “men” because I have never heard a woman overplay. Go figure. Regardless, Raymond Herrera—painfully talented, a primary Fear Factory songwriter and technically a challenge to drummers in any genre—is guilty of murder here. The man uses his feet to stamp out any last vestige of pure rock goodness by chasing down the beat like it was the man with the eye patch who killed his little sister. There is absolutely no need to precisely mimic Christian Olde Wolbers’ tooth-rattling, Gatlin Gun guitar work (the former bassist replaces Dino Cazares in that capacity on this CD), as if it were a heavy metal game of Simon. Horribly loud in the mix, the drums effectively kill the structural integrity of almost every composition. They leave the music without a heartbeat, that pulsing, earthy cadence that is the giver of life. They completely destroy songs like “Slave Labor,” giving the musical space no breadth, no texture; it’s like listening to an assembly line sealing a 24-count box of cream cheese. When I’m in the mood for heavy sport, I want to listen to someone destroying something, not manufacturing it. Now, we can argue about construction and deconstruction all you want, but no matter. The drums just aren’t the most essential piece to the archetypal puzzle. Speaking of necessity and the lack thereof, there’s also a cover of Nirvana’s “School” here, but all it really makes you want to do is go and pull out Bleach and listen to the original.

—Bill Ketzer

Mount Analog
New Skin (Film Guerrero)

Musician and producer Tucker Martine brought forth the first Mount Analog disc in 1997, created primarily from compositions he’d created for a traditional Japanese dance. Since then he’s worked with artists as varied as Sam Rivers and Modest Mouse. While empowered by his vision and direction, New Skin delights in the surprise twists and discoveries that come from collaborating with others. Here he works with such Seattle-area neighbors as Bill Frisell and Fred Chalenor, and the results move fluidly between evocative atmospherics, hops around the globe, soulful jazz grooves, and anything else that may’ve wandered into the fold. The 11 instrumental pieces range in length from under a minute to nearly six, and their relative brevity allows the individual character of individual tracks to bump into one another, creating their own sets of sparks, tensions, and release. From “Night Night” and its minimalist piano figures embedded in fragile electronic washes, to the railroad screeches and field recordings giving way to a celebratory rave-up in “Freeze Green,” the contrasting juxtopositions make New Skin one unified and full album experience. It’s at once modernist and organic, the studio being an important tool, but not the defining element.

—David Greenberger

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