Augie March

Watch Me Disappear

(Sony/BMG; 2008)

By Scott Reid | 8 October 2008

Can we tangentially blame Neil Finn for this?

2006’s tired and uneven Moo, You Bloody Choir had set us up for Augie March’s evolution into this generation’s Crowded House in a big way, but the band has never embraced Finn—a talented songwriter, granted—as wholly as with Watch Me Disappear, going as far as to record it in the man’s Auckland studios. That’s pretty much where his involvement ends, though; Finn didn’t produce this record, nor is he responsible for the further softening of Augie’s sound beyond, y’know, establishing this brand of clever yet overly produced and calculated folk-pop in the first place.

There’s an argument to made, but perhaps we should instead be pointing fingers at Joe Chicarelli. Fresh off co-producing My Morning Jacket’s unfairly maligned Evil Urges, Chicarelli is best known for air-brushing the artistic boundaries of Oingo Boingo, Spirit of the West, Counting Crows, U2, and latter-day Shins. If you’re a long-time fan of Augie March, your reaction to this choice will likely echo your reaction to the record he has helped meticulously craft in Finn’s (presumably pastel-coloured) laboratory, one virtually impossible to feel passionately about one way or the other.

The one major exception is the title track, a sonorous wielding of the group’s prior glory that is far more sinister than anything they’ve touched since Strange Bird (2002). It’s a confident and much needed “see, even with boring production we’re still capable of this“ proclamation—making what follows, then, the perpetual let-down of a catch: “...but we’re not really interesting in doing that. Check out this boring shit though!” I won’t outright call it an affront to fans who embraced this band’s first two records for their versatile growing pains, but I will say this: if Watch Me Disappear‘s yawning chasm really is the end-game for Augie March’s long-gestating maturation, god, what a waste. This is the kind of geriatric soft-pop Glenn Richards could perform onstage in robe and slippers, the gray lull of his pipe-puffing keeping rhythm.

First single “Pennywhistle,” actual fucking whistle in tow, leads the onslaught of unnecessary blandness. Taking a page from Colin Meloy—who else would think to rhyme Aegean Sea and Gallipoli?—Richards, his voice toothless under this sheen, knowingly espouses: “Now I summon up Jack, sat up on the hill / The wrong kind of music, the wrong kind of pill … O what beast has my name on its snaggle tooth / And eternal slobber for my finishing youth?” The concept of fleeting youth is a recurrent theme of this record, and appropriately so; Richards is clever enough to acknowledge his maturing as a writer, but that just further begs the question: shouldn’t he know better? Did he really think we’d want to hear Augie March—at any stage of their career—do their best Rod Stewart on “Farmer’s Son” (classic Rod, but Rod neverthefuckingless) or write what’s tantamount to a Richard Hawley cover with the exaggerated sweep of “Becoming Bryn”? The bits that sound like Bloody Choir, like “The Slant” and “Dogsday,” fare better but can’t possibly hold up against such a flood of beige.

I’d love to pin how by-rote this all feels on someone or something else, but really, who am I kidding. Blame Neil Finn or Joe Chicarelli all I want, it’s Richards who sits nondescript and comfortable at the heart of this devolution, the rest of the band trading yawns in turn. I feel the need to remind myself they were once capable of a triumph like Strange Bird—once able to pull us in with intuitive song structure and chemistry and tension, to pull a monster like “The Drowning Dream” out of their giddy, bet-you-thought-you-had-us-pegged! sleeves. Sadly, that fundamental ability to surprise us within familiar confines—the true appeal of Sunset Studies (2000), Strange Bird, and the Eric Drew Feldman-helmed bits of Bloody Choir—is missing here. What they’ve run with in its place isn’t horrible, but there’s so little beneath the uniform buzz of its pleasantness that frankly it’s as if, just four albums in, they’ve grown content in merely being.

Sigh. Here’s hoping a Steve Albini whip-crack leads the comeback.