By 2000, by the time Y2K anxiety had dissipated and, before the events of 9/11 cast a pall everywhere, post grunge was solidifying its place in the world and the vestiges of Britpop were bouncing along in ever decreasing circles.
The Australian indie scene towards the end of the previous decade was mostly typified either by the post grunge attack of bands like The Vines, Powderfinger and Silverchair, the hyper commercial pop of Kylie Minogue and Savage Garden and INXS or electronic exploration by The Avalanches. At the top of the literate indie tree, The Go-Betweens, after an absence and shedding of key members, were about to return to the scene with GoBs Mark II – ‘The Friends of Rachel Worth’, while artists like Ed Kuepper, The Dirty Three and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds maintained an essential stately presence on their own unique path.
In the midst of this, in October 2000, Melbourne band Augie March released their seminal debut album through BMG, ‘Sunset Studies’: an almost quiet reflective eddy collecting in a separate branch to the mainstream rough and tumble musical river. The album was meant to have celebrated its 21st birthday last year, but of course other events interved. This year, Augie March are taking to the road to play the album in full as a belated birthday present to all (details below).
The album came out at the same time as Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’, and it is in this company I feel Augie March shared some – but not all – of its genetic code. Another distant link can be made with Sigur Ros, whose second album Ágætis byrjun came out the previous year: one that was filled with glacial fragile movements with a cinematic scope. The magic shared element is an ability is to allow the spaces in between speak volumes, and in ‘Sunset Studies’ Augie March produced something quite spectacular with its intricate delicacy and spatial sound.
Like these two albums, ‘Sunset Studies’ is delicate, heartbreakingly beautiful at times and suffused with a burnished glow stemming from a certain fragility with evocative poetry: something at that time that stood out from the bluster and bravado of many of their peers. Main songwriter Glenn Richards’s vocals are restrained, crystal clear and yearning throughout, rent with a deep thoughtfulness and melancholia.
The band, which formed in 1996, wrote about the genesis of the record:
In 1996 we had a change of government in Australia. Selfishness and greed were promoted, community and equality were shunted. Individualism reigned which was great if you were born with the desirable attributes or into the right circumstances.
We made Sunset Studies in 99-00 because it was evident one progressive and generous Australia was fading fast and another very strident and socially regressive one was emerging.
The new values were given many, many years to flourish and were lovingly curated into a national ethos by a compliant, bought and paid for media, capitalised ruthlessly on by a taxpayer subsidised private sector, then carefully topped up by uninspired but effective concoctions designed by small, nasty men and women to keep us drunk with fear at happy hour.
These values contained in themselves easy bristles to trigger, which was and is their dark, dumb genius.
It’s 2022 and the damage is done, the corruption is a festered crater for all to see, but there’s a little bit of hope that the fortune we have here might not be fully squandered yet.
The passion and heartache bleed into every track.
Opening track, ‘The Hole In Your Roof’ begins in a haunting drone and Richards’ voice soft and yearning with an unashamed Australian diction: the track burns over seven minutes with an intensity: solemn and stately with a jangling guitar strum strengthening as the song progresses. This is a stunning opener and sets the scene for the album: passionate, powerful, lyrical and melodic:
‘Maroondah Reservoir’ has a delicate interplay of instrumentation and introduces a psychedelic and slightly trippy air – indeed the songwriting can at times have that Beatles-esque/XTC strength of orchestral pop filtered with a kaleidoscope lense.
Richard’s poetic expression and delicate vocals in ‘There Is No Such Place’ creates something quite mesmerising and affecting as the guitars and piano intertwine lovingly throughout. The impossibly beautiful expression is haunting, the lyrics filled with melancholy:
There is no such place,
So perhaps we have a reason
For our long and falling face,
Above all it would be warm
But we would keep our heads all
Clear as Winter, storms would be
A sight to make us shiver
But without the chill
Of thinking all is hither-thither
The search for something unattainable is captured with a bleak observational alacrity that is heartbreaking:
‘Tulip’ moves away from traditional structures and becomes a study or movement with Richards’s voice at its most Thom Yorke – wandering, expressive, soaring, ebbing and flowing over the ranging instrumentation, sometimes wild and discordant.
Percussive beat and noises precede ‘Tasman Awakes’ which launches in something that almost hints, with its melodic refrain, at ‘Norwegian Wood’, but again has a psychedelic sheen with lovely layered harmonies and arching guitars. This has a potent and vibrant swing.
Surreal snippets flow in and out of the album – ‘Believe Me’, a brief instrumental has some strange hypnotic vocal samples underneath the reflective quitely strumming guitars.
The title track for the album is a haunting mid point in the album and Richards’s voice at the front with haunting, yearning lyrics:
This is what happens when a great love crashes – tonight you let me see you for the first time in a long time.
Augie March perfect an unadulterated raw and organic sound: the guitars and piano are visceral and crystalline under Richards’s velvet soft vocals as they deliver subtle and indelible melodies. ‘Sunset Studies’ almost collapses under its own weight as it comes to an end.
Augie March’s folk roots shine through in ‘Men Who Follow Spring the Planet ‘Round’ with its haunting violins and plucking instrumentation: there is a deep rural pastoral waltz to the track. Seagull singing in the distance and a rumbling thrum feature in ‘Angels of the Bowling Club’: a reflective piece that is elegiac and filled with yearning.
The folk style continues in the almost sea shanty banjo plucking thrum of ‘Heartbeat and Sails’ (with a Waterboys roll) with the jangling guitars and amusing nautical themed video:
The album closes with some of the most beautiful tracks – the indie pop jangle of ‘Here Comes The Night’ with the band at their most Dylanesque and Richards’s crooning brittle and beautiful. ‘Asleep In Perfection’ with its statuesque grace and presence was as close as you could get to a hit single in the indie scene: and instant indie classic that shines with an aching beauty:
Final track ‘Owen’s Lament is a ghostly farewell to a classic antipodean album: a slow intense piece stretching over eight minutes that is hypnotic, ebbing and flowing with a tidal force.
‘Sunset Studies’ is a landmark Australian album made all the more incredible by being the band’s debut. The band has continued burning with the same poetic intensity over the last decades – it released its seventh album – ‘Bloodsport and Porn’ – last year, and Glenn Richards released a solo album ‘FIBATTY’ in 2020 (see my review here). Richards has also recently produced the marvellous Christopher Coleman and The Great Escape album ‘The Great Tasmanian Escape’ (read my review here).
Augie March will be playing the album in full in the coming weeks. In their typically literate and humorous style, they say of the forthcoming gigs:
The Long Wait And See. Violet Fane said all things come to those who wait. The wait is over. And good things come in threes, omne trium perfectum. We are excited to play Sunset Studies, live and complete, in Sydney on Thursday March 17 at The Factory Theatre, Canberra on Friday March 18 at The Playhouse and Melbourne on Friday April 1 at The Croxton Bandroom. As bonus enticement, we’re thrilled that Sally Seltmann has agreed to join us in Sydney and Melbourne, Evan Buckley in Canberra. Wait no longer, time to See.
Details are as follows:
Augie March Sunset Studies live shows
Thursday March 17 – The Factory Theatre, SYD
Support: Sally Seltmann
Tickets on sale now here.