Crate-Digging 2011: We Are Augustines – Rise Ye Sunken Ships

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

…Unless I decide to skip around the alphabet. I’ll periodically review newer releases or records that I’m really into at the time.

(self released, 2011*)

Augustines

Click above to download a song from the album.

Dear We Are Augustines,

I love you.

Haha, OK, let me back up a sec. I don’t love you love you, but I think it’s something you need to hear. See, I’ve been listening to your new, self-released record Rise Ye Sunken Ships for the past several days. Exclusively. I haven’t gotten sick of it either. And let me tell you, that’s tough to do to me – most of the time, I’m ready to move on to the next record after a couple of listens. But I’m genuinely going to miss you on my ride home today.

Before I get into the album itself, let me say this first – I applaud you for self-releasing the album. It’s interesting to watch the record business change, isn’t it? I know also you’ve been through a lot of frustration with unscrupulous managers and conniving record labels with your former band, Pela, and are still mired in legal turmoil. It bugs the hell out of me that artists get co-opted, churned through the machine like commodities and wrung dry, all for the benefit of weaselly industry types. But perseverance is the key, and you’ve cut through the crap and made it to the other side – well, at least a side with the possibility of a positive outcome. I hope the model you’re following proves fruitful.

So this, let’s call it “brotherly love,” I’m extending to you is appropriate, as the concept of family – what it is, what it should have been – is central to Rise. It’s seeped into every song in some way, whether obliquely through lost love in “The Chapel” (“I shake shake shake like a leaf” while watching a former lover – or a daughter? – get married), or as direct as you can get, in a song like “Juarez” (“I’ve got a drunk for a mother, got a saint for a brother”). I know what you’ve gone through and how you’ve tried to deal with it – I’ve read the excellent essay “Brother’s Keeper” on your website (and anyone interested in We Are Augustines should read it as well). I mean, [singer] Bill [McCarthy], you’ve weathered family tragedies that would level other people: mother diagnosed as a schizophrenic, growing up in foster care, mother taking her own life by overdosing on painkillers and cocaine, younger brother Jim diagnosed as schizophrenic, Jim living hard and taking his own life while awaiting return to prison – I can’t imagine not self-medicating somehow, and the alcohol-fueled headrush of a touring life with Pela just makes sense.

I highlight these things to bring some perspective to Rise Ye Sunken Ships, aka The Record That Might Never Have Been Released, But Sure as Hell Needed To. This backstory is integral to it – not to say it isn’t enjoyable without it (I listened to it many times before reading “Brother’s Keeper” and enjoyed it thoroughly). You’ve got the brooding, nuanced layers of The National, the sloshed witticisms of Eric Bachmann (not to mention the cigarette-wracked but pitch-perfect voice), and the energetic twists and turns of Broken Social Scene that reveal the big picture gradually over the course of a full album. You’d never know the record was crafted by a duo (Eric Sanderson, also ex-Pela, being the other full member – sorry I haven’t mentioned you until now…), it’s so lush and composed, yet so raw and live-sounding. “Book of James,” about Jim, is particularly enthralling, especially after reading about it in the essay; and “Headlong Into the Abyss,” in which the shouts of “Call the police, call your priest, call whoever you want, but I won’t stop the car” kick up a frenzy of self-destructive resignation rivaled only in such great catharsis eruptions as The Walkmen’s “Little House of Savages” or Archers of Loaf’s “Fashion Bleeds.”

And your cover of Crooked Fingers’ “New Drink for an Old Drunk” – how appropriate – could very easily have been phoned in – but my God. You guys. You guys. You have internalized it and made it your own, and it fits perfectly within the context of what you’re doing. I want to cry when listening to it. One of many times on the album.

The nerves flayed in the lyrics and performance reach desperate new levels of exposure in “Patton State Hospital.” Another song about Jim, you’ve got to feel the bicoastal difference as he rots away in shelters, mental institutions, and prison on the West Coast, helpless in your ability to help him, but you try anyway. That downward spiral is heartbreaking to read about, and your willingness to try to let him live with you in New York, even though only briefly, should be applauded. It’s impossible to guess how your complicated relationship with him affected your communication, in particular after he moved back west. But you had to know how bad it was, and the line in the chorus of “Patton State Hospital,” “We’re gonna get you cleaned up, James,” delivered with such heartrending pity on such a misunderstood and mishandled person, is the point at which you had me. To focus so much on such a simple realization, that the mere act of “cleaning up” opens the possibility for proper medical attention, opens the possibility for rehabilitation, opens the possibility for removal from squalor, opens the possibility for a better life, is such an obvious first step. That the system failed Jim, and that his sickness took him, is an unbelievable tragedy. And you’ve nailed that here; throughout the record, in fact.

Rise Ye Sunken Ships plays like a transformation – it’s horrific and captivating to see the stripping and reinterpretation of family meaning unfold as nakedly as it does. There’s a hopefulness in the tragedy, a sense of moving on, a hint of healing. But through it all, you guys are master storytellers, and elite rock composers. I can do nothing but suggest this record to others, and add it high on my list of 2010 releases. And I hope your newfound sobriety acts as a clarifier, opening avenues of reconciliation unavailable in the haze. So, here’s to you, We Are Augustines, to perseverance, to Rise Ye Sunken Ships, and to the years to come.

Best wishes,
Ryan

RIYL: The National, Crooked Fingers, Broken Social Scene

*Editor’s note: Woops! Rise Ye Sunken Ships isn’t actually out yet, and will release in 2011. Thanks to the band and their peeps for the update. Keep an eye out for it!

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