Augustus are one of few bands doing "Americana" well.
Picture a tall, slender white male in skinny jeans and a fedora. His five-o-clock shadow and buttoned-up flannel give him the vague whiff of farmy-ness, while his thick-rimmed glasses suggest a summer or two in Europe. He steps toward the microphone, his guitar held close to his chest. There is something apologetic in his cadence, as if he pities us for caring about ‘little-old-him’, as if he isn't bursting with gig-time exhilaration.
Perhaps he isn’t bursting. Perhaps he is that cool. It just isn’t very likely, and this disengaged, ‘bothered-to-be-here’ shtick has grown stale. Who else is tired of musicians pretending not to care?
He hunches down into the microphone when he could have simply raised it to his face: the falsely meek have long since inherited the live music earth. He begins to strum a simple progression and sings abstruse lyrics about a lover lost, flipping bizarrely between first and third person, or some other lazy songwriting oddity. A couple of bars before the second verse, a kick-drum enters and plods as predictably as a sitcom laugh-track, lending the composition the illusion of growth toward something grander. Suffice to say, an airy female backup vocalist will appear, followed by a fiddle solo, followed by the chorus one last time with extra raspy vocals, etcetera, etcetera. And so goes the rest of a stale song born of a rapidly dying sub genre of rock-and-roll.
This music we call indie folk is inexplicably the embodiment of 2015 popular rock music. It dominates rock radio and café open mics and white kid fashion. But indie folk as we know it hasn’t got much time left atop its perch. (Let’s be honest, it’s a miracle it’s been there so long.) Its ascendency has long prevented the uprising of something fresher from its seed: something that takes the best of indie folk and transforms it. Think of what the grunge rockers of the early 90s did with hair metal: They kept the ass-kickery, but relegated the power ballads and hair products into late night infomercial-ville. Indie folk has long needed its grunge moment: an injection of the raw and the visceral, and a bleeding out of the predictable and the soppy.
Which brings us to Boulder-bred power trio Augustus. Fresh off a packed Fox gig and their recent EP release Into Frames, the band appears bent on pushing listeners toward this very exodus; toward something with sweat and bones and teeth, toward something ten miles down the road you never saw coming.
To be sure, their mission was not always so clear, nor their potential. They came together in early 2014 under the name Tusk, which they were forced to change after a few months of gigging, thanks to a Fleetwood Mac tribute band. They had trouble booking desired venues, and even when they did, they often appeared awkward due mostly to the central struggle of their project: How do you take the instruments of the indie folk golden era (cello, banjo, acoustic guitar, harmonica) and make them rock? And how do you do it with only three players? I’m not talking Béla Fleck-style rock here either. I’m talking Tom Waits and Robert Johnson-style rock (both artists Augustus covers): rough, raw beats, and blues.
Augustus’ initial challenge was obvious: They couldn’t achieve a big enough sound to capture the larger local rooms. At early Augustus shows, one got the impression of an outmanned and outgunned rebel army attempting to overtake a higher ground and failing. It wasn’t loud enough; it wasn’t determined enough. It sagged. The songs frontman Colin Kelly brought to the band were better suited for his solo project, for which they were originally written. The act catered to crowds of wine sippers rather than beer swillers, which, as any local player will tell you, is where the real money’s at.
But as any Malcom Gladwell fan would say, if you put in the hours, you reap the rewards. Augustus began practicing more regularly and gigging like they had ecophobia. Not long into their second identity, Augustus had bigger crowds showing up and staying the night. They’d broken the barrier for which every local act longs, but few achieve: Suddenly, there were faces on the dance floor that didn’t belong to close friends or significant others. With hungrier and rawer originals like “Born of Men” and “Bloodbath” and a new slew of unorthodox, head-knocking covers, they earned license to offer weekend audiences their more introspective and vulnerable work. This arsenal widened their appeal and deepened the experience of their set; the ballads of earlier days began to land with their originally desired impact.
They’ve since graduated to playing more select venues, and they’ve created tangible local buzz. So when their EP release party for Into Frames hits (The Lay Dog in late August), it will be a significant event for Boulder music fans. Friday nights in this town have been blessed in recent history with an enviable music scene, and the release of this record is another noteworthy development.
The cover of the EP features the three players standing on the front porch of a residential neighborhood with their indie folk golden-era instruments at their sides. They each wear black suits and ties and bizarre white masks with horns cover their faces. It’s an appropriate choice of album art in context of the space they hope to fill within the indie folk scene: They will conform to the extent that they wish, because some of it is worth conforming to, but no further. However, It’s a jarring choice of album art in light of their on-stage personas (barring Wright, the undisputed fashionista of the trio). Kelly most often sports graphic tees atop scraggly jeans (who, me care?) while the occasionally suspendered super utility-man Jim Herlihy looks like the guy you cheated off of in advanced calculus. The cover suggests this project is an effort to stick out rather than fit in, and in a scene that more often rewards homogeny, it’s bold.
Not long into the first track, “Born of Men,” it becomes clear that this sophomore release is an improved effort from their first EP, The Common Collapse. Kelly’s baritone vocals seem to have found a way to pop on the high-end without overpowering the instrumentation, which was an issue on Collapse. Right out of the gate, Kelly reaches to the top shelf of his range and delivers a long, bendy wail with an honest scratch in his throat. His lyrics on this track are exceptional at times (though this holds true throughout the record). The line “warm blue blood’s running through my veins” repeats at the bridge of this bluesy thumper, and it showcases his ability to say something plain, penetrating, and true. The rhythm section on this track is also another leap forward from Collapse. You can really feel the depth of the pluck on Wright’s cello, followed by the instrument’s lush ring. Thumbing a quality blues-rock bass line on an unfretted instrument can’t be easy, and there isn’t a flub in the tune. And beneath it all lays the foundation set by Herlihy: the occasional ambient banjo pick, the kick drum, the snare, the tambourine. His performance gives the illusion of extra players (and yes, he does this all live too, while flipping a pizza, sending a text, and passing the dutchie to the left-hand side). “Born of Men” is a jab to the jaw.
The second track “Virtues” comes from the vault of Kelly’s solo project stash. Its sound and lyrics encapsulate the longing mood of the record as a whole: Life is beautiful, but it’s off a tick; we’ve lost something, and we can’t remember what it was. “I just want my victory/I just want my happenstance/To find me.” And we need it to find us because we don’t know where to look on our own. The chromatic melody and lush harmonies land well on the ears on this one, because they’re distinct from the traditional indie-folk songwriting formula. And the heart of this track is the beat of Wright’s slashing cello, and the solo he rips at the end. It’s aggressive and beautiful and disorienting. But if there were a moment on this album you wished Augustus rocked a full drum kit, it would be here. While it is impressive the three are able to achieve a sound so big with their chosen tools (due especially to the many contributions of Herlihy), it is easy to imagine the heights achievable on this track with a beefed up bottom end.
“Return” is the most accessible track on the record. It’s bitter-sweetly upbeat and the melody recalls Motown, with Kelly crooning his best Otis Redding. It’s also the EP’s most complete track, arranged to amplify the strengths of each band member: Kelly’s soul-belting verses, Herlihy’s elegant and rich banjo solo, and Wright’s driving pluck. It’s produced with a fine subtlety: Each movement within the piece stands distinctly beside the next. While Kelly recently lamented the “poppy-ness” of this song (as any self-respecting artist reflexively resents accomplishments with commercial potential), “Return” is an unqualified ace. If this article has sparked your curiosity over Augustus at all, give this track a listen.
The second-to-last track “Bloodbath” serves to dispel the notion of Augustus as a bluegrass band, a conclusion that would be easy to draw from a quick glimpse at their onstage set-up. And in recent years, a bluegrass band is quite a fashionable thing to be, especially here out west. But Augustus wants none of that. “We don’t want to be lumped in there,” Kelly recently told me. “We want to be a rock band.” This track is a definitive step in that direction. It opens with a heavily distorted electric guitar line and a thumping electric bass, for which Wright has traded in his cello. “Bloodbath” also represents the fullest percussion sound on the EP. The track is a spot-on melodious rock-and-roller, and according to the band, a sign of things to come.
Finally, the lament of “Cursive,” the last track of the EP, has been voiced more and more by artists of this generation: With the great promise of a more socially interconnected life by virtue of technological advancement, the exact opposite has occurred. As our social connections have broadened, they’ve shallowed. “Oh the distance in the shrinking word/Write me a letter in cursive girl” sings Kelly at the chorus, and more than any on this record, this lyric lands. (Full disclosure: I am likely the biggest cursive-in-the-classroom advocate you know.) “Cursive” features a simple chord progression on the guitar and rich background instrumentation with Herlihy’s delicately placed plucking, and Wright bowing long, sweet notes. This track is a tale of two vocal performances by Kelly. On the high end, particularly at the last chorus, he delivers notes that rumble the earth in opulent tones. The verses, however, which reside at the bottom of his baritone range, are frail in comparison to what Kelly’s able to accomplish throughout the rest of record. But as each Augustus project has upgraded from the last, it’s likely that will be resolved in future recordings.
As a whole, Into Frames is a distinct leap forward, in both songwriting and production, for an ascendant local band. It also succeeds in its intention, which is to supply the community with a different twist on the best of what’s already been done. Boulder music fans should give this one a good listen and look forward to whatever’s next from Augustus.
Is indie folk’s much needed grunge moment upon us? No, not yet. But Into Frames is a step in the right direction.
All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.