Bill McCarthy and Eric Sanderson were born within 24 hours of one another; both have brothers who suffered years of psychiatric institutionalisation; both with hard, jagged histories of substance abuse and schizophrenia running through the bloodlines of their respective families. They were the partnership that held together drunk-as-hell bar band Pela (think ‘Mats, Marah, Steady) and almost dragged themselves out of obscurity under that moniker. Sadly for them it was not to be (the usual death-by-industry and self-sabotage story) and their second album seemed doomed to remain half-realised, half-recorded and gathering dust on a shelf in the corner of a cheap studio.
A few years have passed since the death of Pela and Sanderson and McCarthy have returned with that very same set of songs originally destined for the record in question, along with a new name, a very, very different outlook, and a master of production in tow.
We Are Augustines deal primarily in a simple kind of classic, heart-on-sleeve rock music combining direct, memorable riffs with honest, deeply-felt lyrics that can sometimes appear simultaneously thuggish and eloquent. To this very old-fashioned set-up they’ve brought the production of Dave Newfeld, and that, but of course not only that, has allowed these dirt-specked, beer-filled Americana songs a life above and beyond that which one would imagine possible for such an archetype of a band.
We begin steeped in a little too much mediocrity with slow-builder ‘The Chapel Song’, in which horns fill the spaces left by climbing keys and beats stretch out across a languorous picking part but frustrate in never hitting their full crescendo. It’s also the first time we hear the surprise of McCarthy’s voice – a phlegmy, flailing, spitting growl capable of sonorous flight while also adept at making the listener feel they are hearing something utterly genuine.
There are dozens of moments where things could go very wrong indeed – moments where credibility is stretched and you are reduced to wondering how a band in 2012 could imagine they’d get away with this shit, moments like the litany of lyrical cliché they hit on the Lanegan-inspired ‘East Los Angeles’ , referencing Ferris wheels, freeways, polaroids and drive-in movie screens like Springsteen never happened. The Springsteen thing crops up quite a bit: aside from the slight vocal similarities there’s the drumroll kick of ‘Headlong Into the Abyss’ and the rhythmic snap of ‘Book Of James’, but this is to be expected on a record littered with references to deserts, bar stools and tequila.
The funny thing is that even when they’re dropping this kind of unsubtle gear – musically and lyrically – it’s treated with guile and sophistication in terms of arrangement and instrumentation. The key track here, and literally the key to understanding the universe of the album itself, is ‘Book Of James’, named after McCarthy’s wayward brother and, as with almost the entirety of the rest of the album, obsessed with him. It’s a rambling roar of a song with “green eyes rolled back” in their heads; sweet, sharp strums tag back and forth with apocalyptic swirls of sound, voices switching spots with veritable tears of drum. It’s absolutely all over the place, it’s everywhere at once, it’s a myriad of sound and sentiment that, in its cumulative effect is actually awe-inspiring.
When you aren’t gasping for breath at moments like this (or occasionally thinking: do they sound like the Waterboys, or Gaslight Anthem? – neither of whom truly suits), you get treated to the stadium-ready choruses of massive, muscular and yet still fragile tracks like ‘Headlong Into The Abyss’, which boasts a chorus that Arcade Fire would probably use if they were more obsessed with alcohol than world unity, and its desperately great lyrics: “Call the police, call your shrink, call whoever you want, but I won’t stop this car”. You get the Pixies latino chug of the punchdrunk ‘Augustine’, again for James, again an incredibly complex track built from the bottom up with handclaps, electro stabs and vocals ebbing and flowing from left to right, a call to arms for lost souls everywhere; and you get the heart-heavy sci-fi shimmer of ‘Barrels Of Leaves’ with it’s payoff line “Why do you pack your parachute/With a thousand ton weight?” – a lyric which in this instance appears to be a reference to his lost mother as well as that brother who fills almost every other moment here.
In fact, the twin obsessions of maternal and fraternal love and loss are most perfectly poised on the nearly awful but suddenly addictive and brilliant ‘Juarez’. Its chorus, a near drumless backroom bawl, somehow pulls itself into rowsing, enthralling territory with the simplest of declamations: “Got a drunk for a mother/Got a saint for a brother”.
It almost sums up the whole album.
Let’s digress for one moment here – it’s important to know, maybe. This record proved almost un-reviewable, so caught up does one get in its folds and creases. Time gets sucked away comparing the band’s version of Crooked Fingers’ ‘New Drink For the Old Drunk’ (they do it a mighty justice as it turns out – and how strange for a band to find a cover that so aptly fits their thematic concerns); being unable to skip tracks; being unable to not revisit certain songs over and over; eventually singing along to the screams; sometimes threatening to pick up an old acoustic guitar and try to fumble for the right chords as the music rolls.
This is unusual. Unusual. Special.
Between the writing of these songs and their emergence in the form of this album McCarthy’s brother James committed suicide in a U.S. secure facility. McCarthy never got to the bottom of the circumstances that surrounded the death, much as he’d never truly understand the death of his mother in a homeless shelter cot when he was aged 19. But this record, this unbridled but beautified shout from the depths of the guts, from the start of the heart, will serve as a worthy and unforeseeably wonderful tribute. And in whichever fashion McCarthy and Sanderson are linked, be it by tragedy, mystery or loss – they are now bound by this hour of excellence, against all odds.