There's a kind of voyeuristic, vicarious pleasure in following a band from their humble beginnings to recognition as musical talents. My first meeting with Augie March a band that at that time hailed from Shepparton, Australia (a country town where everything is humble) was five years ago on a compilation of young bands put together by a government-run organization. Even then, when they played relatively standard mid-'90s indie-rock, there was a little something that suggested a grander future.
At the beginning of their career they were plagued by comparisons to Jeff Buckley. Theirs was a more layered and complex brand of folk than Buckley put to record. They made a debut EP for BMG of roughly-hewn bedroom songs and wordy epics given the rock-band treatment; they followed it with another EP of more modern folk songs that were, by the band's admission, more muddled and complex than necessary. All the while, a legion of fans built and rumors abounded of a masterpiece opus to be released as the debut album.
Those rumors were not at all inflated. Sunset Studies is a masterpiece, and it is a sprawling opus (76 minutes) of grand, sleepy post-folk songs; the kind of record that usually comes at the end of an arduous and dedicated career when a band feels it can take some risks without appearing pretentious and cocky.
Opening to the soft sounds of looped keyboard drone, quietly strummed electric guitar, shimmering cymbals and early morning AM radio murmurings, this record doesn't present itself loudly so much as sidle up next to you, slowly befriend you and then throw the lights up as the first track climaxes in ascending "ooh" calls as reminiscent of the Beach Boys as they are of birds. It's the beauty of this record that it sidles softly and discreetly rather than bludgeoning you over the head with hooks, distortion and bombast. It is 76 minutes of soft acoustic guitar balanced with eerie delay- and reverb-touched lead guitar lines; 76 minutes of Glenn Richards' beautiful upper-register vocals delivering his image-laden, intricate and wordy lyrics ("I saw twilight car waxers, corpulent dog walkers, clean canny couples on the sunset strip/ From a tower 40 miles to the east of Augusta saw a plague on the Indian/ a'coming on a windship") balanced by the lower harmonies of drummer David Williams.
I cannot capture the essence of the album inside of any word constraint. The beauty is in the details: the wavering keyboard and piano lines of the late Rob Dawson, the banjo in "Heartbeat and Sails," the floating violin, the metronome at the start of the closing track. It's an amazing, entirely fulfilling album that I wait patiently to see if they can top. Either way, the songs here are timeless and not bound up in any sense with kitsch modernity. Ethereal but earthy, dustily sketched but incredibly full Augie March constantly reach up to the places very few acts touch even once in their career.