Sometimes all it takes is a songwriter who fully understands life. Not the open-the-doors-and-embrace-the-sunshine life, but the jaundiced, jaded, jackhammer of pain, and the hope that stems from such heavy burdens. The life singer-songwriter Billy McCarthy knows all too well. As the frontman for short-lived NYC-indie Pela he expertly crafted pain and suffering in a way that earned raves. Following the loss of both his mother and brother, he crafted the album Rise Ye Sunken Ships, by that time he was calling band We Are Augustines, before shortening the name to Augustines last year and relocating to Seattle. Augustines, the band’s sophomore effort is far and away their best work to date. Ostensibly an album about finding hope and navigating through the pathways of solace, Augustines is a shimmering, first-rate slice of pensive and passionate indie-rock.
As with any album trying to make a statement of any kind, Augustines opens with an introduction, “I Touch Imaginary Hands,” a 1:39 of twinkling keys, Billy McCarthy’s guttural vocals and the very sense that something big is about to happen.
And then it does.
“Cruel City” is a clattering, concussive work of bristling power, armfuls of soul and a permanence that lasts long after the song skitters to a finish. Though the album is only five minutes young, McCarthy and Co. have already made a huge dent. Smooth, calculating and deeply impacting, “Cruel City” is the kind of song bands work for years to write. That McCarthy has written it this soon into his career is reason enough to think that Augustines is a band destined for something truly special.
On previous albums McCarthy and Co. have rumbled out of the gate with towering, propulsive slabs of modern rock and “Nothing to Lose” is proof of that. Anchored by McCarthy’s throaty delivery, the song is an absolute home run and more reason to add Augustines to your list of must-listen bands for 2014. On the wistful and windswept “Weary Eyes” the song rises like a fog lifting and shimmers and shakes, never once dissipating or collapsing upon itself. Though it can be argued it’s the album’s first big-hearted ballad, there’s a lot more on the table than just romance, tenderness and ample yearning.
Side A concludes with the titanic anthem “Don’t You Look Back” and the chill-inducing “Walkabout.” The former is a radio-ready chunk of modern-rock that drips with polish, professionals and armfuls of passion; while the latter is a piano-driven tour-de-force that leaves it all on the table and begs the listener to shed a tear. Not once in his career has McCarthy sounded this vulnerable, this haggard and this pained. Evocative of Bon Iver, “Walkabout” is a spellbinding five minutes that casts a wide impression long after the disc concludes.
The back end of Augustines opens with “Kid You’re On Your Own” a surging and sturdy ass-kicker that revisits much of the same terrain as “Don’t You Look Back” and “Cruel City.” Moving much like “Weary Eyes,” the slow-rising and vernal “This Ain’t Me” finds McCarthy insistent on his ability to turn a new leaf and his imploring intonations are what make the song so deeply rewarding. As if serving as a post-script to “This Ain’t Me,” successor “Now You Are Free” is an inspiring, uplifting and wholly convincing mid-tempo meditation on breaking the shackles of whatever it is that ties you down.
The album’s closing triumvirate includes “The Avenue,” instrumental “Highway 1 Interlude” and “Hold Onto Anything.” The former is a pleading, piano-driven soul ballad that is deeply poignant and arguably one of the album’s strongest. While an instrumental was probably unnecessary, McCarthy and Co. include it anyways and if it serves a purpose it is probably as an opening salvo for album closer “Hold Onto Anything.” Said song is a juggernaut in every sense of the word. Like many of its predecessors it has a dripping sense of importance and emotional weight that the urge to hit repeat is almost too much to pass up.
Sometimes a band just knows how to craft a song. Sometimes inherent talent is just destined to make albums like that. Chalk it up to whatever you like, but don’t sleep on this album or this band. Augustines is tremendous and hands down one of the best releases of the year.