CD Review: We Are Augustines — Rise Ye Sunken Ships; Playing Red Palace, September 25

We Are Augustines
Rise Ye Sunken Ships

By Al Kaufman

Too many people think that if they have had a hard life, all they need to do is write about it and people will think they are geniuses. Sure, the melody may never get going, the lyrics may be a bit clunky, “But it’s a true story, man. Isn’t that amazing?” Those people need to listen to We Are Augustines to see how to do it right.

Songwriter, lead singer and guitarist William McCarthy has had as tough a life as anyone. He never knew his father. His mother was an alcoholic schizophrenic and her children ended up in foster care. His brother, James, was also a schizophrenic who lived in and out of institutions prisons. At about the time his original band, Pela, was breaking up, McCarthy’s brother committed suicide. McCarthy, along with Pela bassist, guitarist, keyboardist, and songwriter Eric Sanderson, and drummer Rob Allen, regrouped to form We Are Augustines. Picking the name was easy. McCarthy and Sanderson both have August birthdays, Pela dissolved in August, and McCarthy’s brother committed suicide the same month. August plays a heavy role in the band’s life.

From this fertile soil grew Rise Ye Sunken Ships. Yes, they are essentially songs about McCarthy’s trials and tribulations, particularly his relationship with his brother, but the music soars and the lyrics are subtle and obscure enough to offer universal appeal. This is an album about loss and — as the album title suggests — hope; full of swelling, anthemic melodies. It is the kind of album that, if enough people hear it, should end up on a lot of year end best-of lists. It’s that good.

Rise Ye Sunken Ships combines the anthems of U2 with the everyman torment of Springsteen, and throws in a dash of Killers’ sonic grandiosity. Opening track, “Chapel Song,” about a man attending the wedding of an ex, recalls The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” both thematically and musically. The anguish builds with the melody, but in the end the character still sees “a bright blue sky.”

Songs “Headlong Into the Abyss” and “Book of James” offer a one-two punch as strong as anything Mike Tyson threw in his prime. Harking back to Springsteen in his Born to Run days, McCarthy sings of the rush of stealing a car (with his brother) and driving it on the open road. “Call the police/Call your shrink/Call whoever you want but I won’t stop this car.” The rush is preferred over sanity. “I ain’t gonna hang around waiting for some pill to kick in,” he concludes. While it sounds heavy-handed on paper, it is only majestic in song. “Book of James” works the same. “He’s stuck in his shoes/Unable to move/Kid, I drove all night here/To tell you I love you.” Yes, the lyrics are a bit too obvious and blatant on paper as McCarthy equally displays his love and irritation to his brother, but they work well with the swirling organ line. The final line is the most cathartic words McCarthy could write toward his brother (or his father, or his mother, or himself), “You’re forgiven.” The song ends in a hand-clapping revival mode, promising salvation, and leaving the listener emotionally and physically spent. McCarthy feels it too, as his voice crackles and warbles through the following song, the tender ballad “East Los Angeles.”

The emotional intensity picks up again throughout. In “Juarez” he notes all the dysfunctions in his family, but concludes, “Hey, it’s all right. I’ve got jukebox dreams and stones for eyes.” And “Patton State Hospital,” as to be expected, is loud and angry. The Sanderson-penned “New Drink for the Old Drunk” is also rich, full rock song.

Throughout it all, McCarthy sings with gravelly emotional intensity of an Eddie Vedder, with just a touch of a Marlon Brando mumble, as if he’s not quite as sure of himself as he wants you to believe. While this album is a chronicle of the decent into mental illness, it is also about overcoming huge obstacles and coming out battered and bruised, but coming out nonetheless. And, more importantly, it is a story that is told artistically and beautifully. Rise Ye Sunken Ships shows just how powerful music can be when in the hands of a true genius.

We Are Augustines play Red Palace in DC with The Riverbreaks on Sunday, September 25.

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