Most Australians of the indie-rock hipster variety need no introduction to this Melbourne quintet. But the rest of the world, where Augie March remains in relative obscurity, may. Since forming nearly seven years ago, the band has gone from making surly, spastic rock clamor of bands like Muse and early-Radiohead to producing a quieter, diversified sound that fuses poetic nuances into a chamber-pop/rock wonderland. They write secret love songs to Mother Nature and have you believe that if you play their album at the right time of day, the artwork and liner notes just might come alive.
Their sophomore effort, Strange Bird, is the successor to 2000’s stunning debut, Sunset Studies. It’s filled with fairy-tale song titles and a grandiose production sheen that would send both Phil Spector and Brian Wilson to the corners of their bedrooms. The album modifies the whispered blueprint of its predecessor — as well as handful of noisier EPs they’ve released — and the result is their most evocative, startling album so far.
Opener “The Vineyard” unfolds with a gospel-charged piano and is a good sign of things to come. Where Sunset Studies left miles of acreage between and within tracks, Strange Bird wastes no time in shifting from dreamscapes to stormy alarms, such as on “This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers.” Lead singer/guitarist Glenn Richards goes from telling a tale of a fictional village where there are “men of many colors in their creamy white suits/ With their different colored hands dig in the soil for the roots,” to a big-band swing number that wouldn’t sound out of place on the O, Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
That varied formula continues to develop with the Vaudeville-inspired “Little Wonder,” which fades into the hazed-out hayfield alt-country of “The Night Is a Blackbird.” “O Mi Sol Lin Lon” sounds like someone woke Sigur Ros from a wet dream, and “Song in the Key of Chance” contains such a harsh bombast it has you questioning just what they will throw at you next.
Though it’s intricate and keeps a good balance between the sunshine and the shadows, Strange Bird lacks — despite its bird imagery and impressive wordplay — a consistent direction over its fourteen tracks. Augie March may never grab the attention and patience it deserves from a North American audience. But as long as they persist on their journey, much like the character in Saul Bellow’s 1953 novel The Adventures of Augie March who inspired their name, the band’s mission of self-discovery just might take them from the smoke-filled, underground clubs of Australia to massive global awareness.