"FAR FROM THESE NONSENSE BARS AND THEIR NOWHERE MUSIC,
It's making me sick and I know it’s making you sick,
There's nothing there it's like eating air,
It's like drinking gin with nothing else in…"
It's never easy to pinpoint exactly where Augie March are coming from, but it's abundantly clear where they're not. They're a band apart from the nowhere music that's everywhere and maybe a century or two removed from the desperate bang and chatter of the vapid pop/ rock zeitgeist.
See, in a world gone mad with window-dressing, Augie March actually make stuff. Their albums are leather bound volumes on a shelf groaning with tatty magazines. They're the old family roast joint across the street from the plastic strip mall takeaway. And singer-songwriter Glenn Richards is a real live poet with a six-stringed loom. The guy doesn't even dance.
"Poems used to be called songs," he says, by way of describing his general motivation. "I'm very keen on the idea of bringing that full circle. I love the way words can move together and I guess I find music a natural vehicle for that."
Moo, You Bloody Choir is Augie March's third album. It may be that you're still swimming in the prismatic wordplay and intriguing sonic details of their ecstatically acclaimed Sunset Studies (2000) and Strange Bird (2003) albums, but neither disposability nor immediate transparency are high among this Melbourne band's strengths. So sue them. Or lend an ear.
"One Crowded Hour", the song that sets the scene quoted above, is a typically loaded invitation into Augie March's world. It spins from a gentle finger-picked waltz into an epic melodrama piled high with layers of fleeting joy and dashed hope, all gathering spin under some drunken mirror ball.
Who are those silver-spoon boys and green-eyed harpies? The longer you stare, the more familiar they seem. "Victoria's Secret" unravels in a similar fashion, not like a magic eye gimmick in a magazine, but like an old painting in a public building that questions ancient characters under 21st century light.
"Thin Captain Crackers"? "The Baron of Sentiment"? Are they Dickensian caricatures, dry biscuits or some half-imagined pub in Carlton? "Bolte and Dunstan" are covered in ancient pigeon poop, but they're still talking in murmurs to suited commuters rushing the streets of Melbourne.
"I wrote quite a lot of these songs when I was living in East Melbourne, that old money area," says Glenn. "'Thin Captain Crackers' was literally looking from the window of my bedsit onto the main street, then imagining Ned Kelly riding up the street.
"'Bolte and Dunstan Talk Youth' is the walk up Hotham Street where I used to live, through the gardens, into the State Library, past the statues of the premiers…" and the local late opener, the Exford Hotel? "Actually the album was gonna be called The Exford Dregs…"
As the prospect of a mooing choir might suggest, not everything is what it seems or how it sounds on this extraordinary record. The soft, opiated groove of "Stranger Strange" throws a disturbing light on the junkie kids begging "shrapnel and smokes" on the banks of the Yarra. The jaunty feel of "Cold Acre" is an odd choice for a song that plays in death's revolving door.
That'll be the suitably oblique interpretive skills of Edmondo Ammendola (bass), Adam Donovan (guitars, keys), Kiernan Box (keyboards, string and horn arrangements) and David Williams (drums, percussion). Between them lies the languorous, Gershwin-esque swing of "The Honey Month"; the driven, distorted rock of "Just Passing Through"; the Dylanesque folk of "Baby Bottle" and the country lilt of "Mother Greer".
Moo, You Bloody Choir was recorded in Melbourne, San Francisco and the band's own Second World studio in Nagambie in country Victoria. It was variously produced by Australian studio legend Paul McKercher, by Captain Beefheart/ PJ Harvey alumnus Eric Drew Feldman, and by Augie March.
Its inspiration spanned from St Kilda ("Clockwork") to Hobart ("Mt. Wellington Reverie"), but possibly not during the millennium you're standing in, and not in any way that an expensive video shoot will render obvious.
"I guess I could be guilty of being anachronistic with the kinda themes of some of these songs," Glenn admits, "but a general idea is to tie a notion of the historical to the contemporary: 'Why do we have this society that we have right now?' That idea interests me somehow.
"As usual there's nothing you can directly glean," he says with an almost apologetic laugh, "because I'm not a very literal songwriter. I'm just hoping that imagery will suffice." The album's climactic, string-woven epic, "Clockwork", perhaps puts that another way:
"O but I didn't write this song with a machine,
And I don't know how to stop it from its accidental purpose."
If that kind of imagery doesn't suffice, well, there's always those nonsense bars with their nowhere music…