For better or worse, indie never has, and never will be, all about the music. The genre is, at its best, fan driven, and, given that a sense of community is essential to the success of such groups, offering more than just a musical aesthetic is vital. After all, sub-cultures aren’t built on good tunes alone…
So, whether it’s manifest in The Smiths predilection for gladioli, the maddeningly addictive soap opera that was the Libertines, or the visceral thrill of pulling a paper chain from a limited addition Los Campesinos! single, a fans need for more than just a recording is universally recognised.
Sometimes, however, what’s picked up on is as simple and uncontrived as a back story and, as with Arcade Fire’s already classic debut, ‘Funeral’, you can’t help but feel that ‘Rise Ye Sunken Ships’, the first LP from We Are Augustines, will be interpreted in relation to the circumstances that inspired much of its material.
To summarise, the band’s two principle song writers, Billy McCarthy and Eric Sanderson, found their old band, Pela, despite achieving a good level of success, falling apart due to lack of label support. Whilst struggling to rescue their careers with a new project, Billy received the news that his brother James, following a long struggle with mental illness, had committed suicide.
Out of these conditions, the aptly titled ‘Rise Ye Sunken Ships’ was born. As you might expect, there is a feeling of mourning about the record. Indeed the opening track, ‘Chapel Song’ details a wedding that feels more like a funeral, an empty ritual that leaves the bridegroom feeling “like a bowl of bruised fruit.”
This opening track lays bear the album’s chief dynamic, namely a level of restraint in the instrumentation and vocals that alludes to, but rarely reveals, the full extent of the frustration and, for want of a better word, pain, that lies beneath the composition. The percussion is fairly minimal, the guitar sticks to arpeggios, as if lacking the confidence to branch out, and the gravelly vocals shake, in a manner reminiscent of early Bright Eyes.
The record, has more than one speed though, with the more up tempo tracks, such as ‘Philadelphia’ and ‘Augustine’, sounding like a particularly despairing form of AM rock, somewhere between REM and The Temper Trap. However, most of the songs stick to the formula of arrangements such as ‘East Lost Angeles’, where a simple directness, that sounds something like a more cohesive version of The Mountain Goats, is filled with the all pervading sense of disappointment found in the work of Sparklehorse.
The highlight of the album, somewhat inevitably, all things considered, is ‘The Book of James’, with it’s consistent chime of a few well chosen chords, backed by just enough sliding electric guitar not to steal focus, and the message- “I tried the bible, I tried the bottle, I tried the needle, I tried to love people/ In the end there ain’t nothing much to say.”