Havens Dumb is the first new material from Augie March in six years, a period of hibernation that was foreshadowed by the title of their 2008 album, Watch Me Disappear. It’s a very welcome return, a literate and engaging work that, like the patchwork Australia featured the album cover, is best appreciated as a whole.
It’s unlikely that anything here will find its way too deep into the Hottest 100, unlike their surprise hit of 2006. But it’s very refreshing to hear a band whose focus is so clearly on crafting a quality album instead of chasing radio airplay, a lure that must have once been so tempting in the aftermath of their “One Crowded Hour” success.
This LP won’t appeal to everyone, but those who feels its effects will find themselves quite enthralled. And even then, different tracks are likely to appeal to different listeners. With a reputation for perfectionism, the songs here are intricately and subtlety constructed. The listener can be lulled into a place of quiet comfort by apparent background music, only to be struck by a moment of musical beauty or arrested by the cutting insight of a perceptive lyric. Glenn Richards is surely one of our finest songwriters.
The album opens with the warm acoustic guitar of “AWOL”; it’s like being reunited with an old friend, remembering what we have been missing in their absence. The title is very apt after such a long absence, as is its meditation on nostalgia, referencing the nightly television digest of The Goodies and Doctor Who that many of us grew up with. “After the Crack Up” is a slightly peculiar choice for lead single, an understated tune that rewards with repeated listens, but whose appeal is not immediately apparent. Richards’ lyrical talent is on display in “Bastard Time”, a song that cleverly ponders time using the kind of personification that would sit comfortably next to the work of romantic poets from another time altogether.
With beatlesque guitars, harmonies and catchy chorus, “A Dog Starved” proves a better choice as the second single released from the album, while “Father Jack and Mr T” is one of those transformative compositions, turning from ordinary to remarkable by virtue of its arresting chorus.
The most beautiful moment on the album is perhaps “St Helena”, with its textured intertwining vocals. The plaintive refrain of “take this wine away” should resonate with anyone who’s ever suffered a bout of overwhelming melancholia. Usually introspective in their songs, “Definitive History” has the band looking at the bigger question of national identity. With a scathing chorus: “one for the mother, one for the dad, one for the treasurer, one for the plasma screen”, the song darkly questions the real legacy of Howard’s Australia. A brilliantly constructed song; it builds, drawing the listener in. We then get brighter, gangly guitars and upbeat drums on “Villa Adriana” bringing the mood up again. The album ends with blues harmonica in a slow-rock Dylan feel with “The Crime”.
The sounds on the album blend effortlessly; Richards’ smooth vocals float over the lush musical landscape created by the ensemble. Given the album’s high production values, it’s a startling discovery that much of the recording was home made.
Running over an hour, maybe one or two tracks could have been cut with the last section of the album not managing to penetrate in the same way as the earlier material. But taken as a whole, this is an offering of substance.
Open a bottle of red wine and get acquainted with this album – it could keep you company for a long time.
Reviewed by Matthew Trainor