Don the bard mantle at your peril, rockdudes. Before you break out the thesaurus, think of the sick-making excesses of Rush. Think of Lou Reed's recent Edgar Allan Poe travesty. Think of Rick Whatshisname's excruciatingly stupid line about how he needs some chick "like Leda needs her swan" (that swan was Zeus in disguise, and he raped her, you jerk). Sure, reading is fundamental, but keep it to yourselves, chuckleheads.
In light of these literary blunders, it's perfectly understandable if you approach Augie March with caution. After all, the Australian quintet is named for a Saul Bellow novel, and Strange Bird, the group's second full-length and first stateside release, includes such highbrow touches as an index of first lines. Page through the lyric booklet, and you'll find such couplets as "Wagner and wife, drama and strife/Their syphilitic friend Dionysus is wise not to ask" and "Pods of wealthy blonde gobbets with red-rind eyes/Getting pecked at by the heroin sparrows of the western skies." Frontman and chief songwriter Glenn Richards was an English major, if you hadn't guessed already.
Astonishingly, Strange Bird is every bit as smart as it is ambitious, and, more important, it rocks pretty good, too. Embellished with banjos, bells, trumpets, trombones, pianos, and violins, its arrangements bring to mind psychedelic pastoralists XTC, the Flaming Lips, and the Super Furry Animals; Richards's reedy, slightly ravaged voice resembles that of Ray Davies, whose mordant nostalgia for a fallen empire is channeled in the fey and lovely opening track, "The Vineyard." Dark and grand, lusty and rustic, Strange Bird is sweet vindication for well-read rockers everywhere.
From a Basement on the Hill
Call it a tribute, call it rank opportunism, but whatever the motivation for releasing a posthumous CD, the fact remains that we are a sentimental, morbid species, and we'll gladly lap up whatever dregs remain from our dead heroes, who can spin in their graves for all we care. Released almost exactly one year after Elliott Smith died in an apparent suicide, From a Basement on the Hill cements Smith's standing as the prophet of slacker despair. Apotheosized in death, the punk-turned-neofolkie is a cult figure now; his six-album discography attains that dubious distinction reserved for artists who make good on their self-loathing promises. From Nick Drake to Kurt Cobain, from Virginia Woolf to Sylvia Plath, suicide confers authenticity. Yes, it's cheesy and sensational and profoundly irresponsible, but people can't seem to resist reading lives backwards, looking for the clues and messages that might turn the whole sordid affair into an honest-to-God tragedy, foretold and foreshadowed by the Fates. How many reviews of Hill will mention the fact that one of the songs is called "A Fond Farewell"? Never mind that virtually every song Smith ever wrote might serve as a suicide note; we want our closure, and Smith makes it all too easy to find it.
What distinguishes Hill from so many posthumous releases is that Smith was mostly finished with it before he died. Although he hadn't completed the mixes or the sequencing,he'd been working on the album for three years, laying down tracks at several different studios with various engineers. From these recordings, Smith's friends and family members have compiled a surprisingly coherent and satisfying collection of songs. It might not be the best Elliott Smith album (that honor probably goes to 1997's miraculous Either/Or), but it's still an Elliott Smith album -- at once sad and beautiful, angry and defeated, with melodies that yearn and reach with every tremulous breath - and, unfortunately, it's all we have left.