There are always going to be bands that for one reason or another slip under your radar. I’ve always liked Augustana, so maybe their sharing such a similar name to Augustines either confused me or put me off. More likely, our paths just never crossed despite earlier this year, Augustine’s front man Billy McCarthy playing a solo gig at the Prince Albert in Brighton, a gig I was even invited to go to!
My first exposure to the band came a few month later with the lead single to this album. When Things Fall Apart immediately grabbed my attention. There was something about the drum sound and the synths that I really liked. Having listened to the song many times since, I now know why I liked it so much: it’s got a Queen vibe to it, like a distant cousin to Radio Ga Ga. Billy McCarthy’s emotion-filled vocals helped make it really memorable and made me eager to listen to the rest of the record.
In truth, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I was hoping for more of the same, but it’s a real mixed bag. A few of the ten tracks sound like they were recorded at the same time and in a similar vein to When Things Fall Apart, but most of the album sounds like a totally different band. The one thing that connects them is McCarthy’s voice, which is without doubt Augustine’s greatest asset. As good as a vocalist he is, he isn’t so distinctive that you’d immediately know who was singing. Indeed, like so much of this album, his vocals reminds of you of someone else.
Some of his best vocals can be found on Hold Me Loneliness and No Need To Explain. Hold Me Loneliness has a similar vibe to When Things Fall Apart, although this time the rhythm has more than a touch of the Paul Simon’s to it, while No Need To Explain owes much to Bob Seger. Once again, it’s let down by its workaday lyrics: “Can anybody hear me? Is there anybody out there?” being a case in point.
Indeed throughout the album it’s far too generously sprinkled with cliched lyrics. “I watch you walk out the door” and “Round here it’s getting harder to breathe” being further examples of Augustines’ magpie tendencies. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “Can’t see the forest through the trees” reinforces the impression they struggled to find words and resorted to cherry-picking favourite lines from favourite songs.
But whilst, Augustines might not be the most original band either musically or lyrically, they are still very much worth listening to. The Brooklyn-based trio have admitted to stepping out of their comfort zone with this record, in particular by experimenting with samples and different rhythms. I haven’t heard its 2014 predecessor, so I don’t know how far that journey has taken them, but that experimentation is clearest to hear on at least three of the tracks including album closer Days Roll By. However, the bulk of the record doesn’t feel like they were confident enough to push the envelope with every track. Most are fairly conventional, OK songs, but with little more than a soupcon of originality.
The opening track, the pounding Are We Alive is a good example. It sounds like it was recorded live. It also sounds like they’ve been listening to a lot of Springsteen and Bon Jovi on the tour bus. Indeed, with its frantic pace, Are We Alive gives quite a confusing first impression to the album and would, I think, have been better placed as the final song. It also contains another of those rent-a-lyric lines “The silence when you don’t call is deafening.”
Of the slower songs, my favourite is probably Running In Place a bombastic number that features a choir, synths and drum machines. It also features some impassioned vocals from McCarthy, although vocally it’s reminiscent of Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat. I’m not sure it needed the background vocals by Pape & Cheikh which kick in towards the end. The Senegalese duo also make an appearance on May You Keep Well, a song driven by percussion layers which never steers very far from Graceland territory.
Not that long ago, there was a trend for bands to release two versions of an album: one where they rocked out, the other where they ditched the electronics and did it all acoustically. I can’t help but feel this one would have worked better that way too, giving the listener the best of both worlds. Even so, while This Is Your Life is a bit of schizophrenic record, not quite sure which direction it should be going in, it’s still well worth giving a listen.
And, if you like what you hear, it won’t be too long before you can experience what it sounds like live as Augustines will be kicking off their Autumn 2016 headline tour with a date in Brighton.