Saturday, July 10, 2010

Album Review: Augustana - All the Stars and Boulevards

Augustana: All the Stars and Boulevards
[Epic 2005]


Coming away from Augustana’s 2005 debut album All the Stars and Boulevards, what first came to my mind was “I’ve heard this all before.” Sure, there are numerous songs that are really quite melodic and pleasing, but there is nothing groundbreaking on this mainstream pop rock release. Taking pages from bigger-named modern rockers like Dashboard Confessional, Goo Goo Dolls, and even a little from Matchbox Twenty, Augustana offers no big surprises, except for perhaps their biggest hit to date “Boston,” which is the album’s high point. Playing by the book, however, does mean emotional undertones and catchy choruses abound to satisfy an audience probably consisting mostly of teenage girls.

At the forefront of this soft rock barrage is lead singer, guitarist, and pianist Dan Layus, who actually holds his own as a strong vocalist, even if he does simply sound like a more contemplative John Rzeznik (Goo Goo Dolls). But unlike the Goo Goo Dolls, Augustana’s formula of a usually optimistic melody carrying pensive and often woebegone lyrics result in songs that are rather forgettable in the long run. Given this formula, it is best to describe the instrumental quality of the album as meeting the standards for anthemic teenage soft rock and doesn’t stand out as being particularly interesting or innovative. The job is done by Layus, Jared Palomar on bass, keyboards and backup vocals, Christ Sachtleben on guitar and mandolin, Justin South on drums, and John Vincent on keyboards and vocals.

Right off the bat, album opener “Mayfield” sums up much of the basic sound of Augustana. The chorus truly soars and is enhanced by vocal harmonization with the melody. Underneath the polished covering, however, are unclear and shallow lyrics. Basically, it sounds like something you would hear during a first kiss scene from some network teen drama. In much the same way, “Stars and Boulevards” uses relatively quiet verses to accent a dramatic chorus, only this time some more lyrical quality is present: “One last / Phone call from you / It wouldn’t hurt much / Just like to hear your voice / And pretend to touch / Any inch of you that hasn’t said it all or read it all / I sung my life away.”

Just before this is “Boston,” which is the band’s main hit, and deservedly so. The song is strongly driven by an excellent piano melody played by Layus that quietly leads up to a powerful, lengthy chorus that appeals to the desire for change and escape. Of note here is that it seems as if this hit single is the root cause of calling Augustana a “piano rock” band. While the piano does appear on numerous tracks, its impact on the song pales in comparison to its effect in “Boston.” Judging by the song’s music video featuring the band playing on a beach covered with old pianos, the band wants this as an image for themselves, perhaps enhancing their music’s emotional, sentimental underpinnings.

The album continues at a monotonous pace until slowing down for the decent “Sunday’s Best” which features a pleasant acoustic guitar. The album’s closer “Coffee and Cigarettes” is even more pleasantly led by gentle guitar picking and a serene complemented by some of the most dreamy lyrics and vocals on the album, making it one of the few songs that break from the common formula. Although doubtful, hopefully the band can make their last track’s innovative sound reverberate over the entirety of their next album.

In terms of substance and innovation, Augustana proves their depth only sporadically throughout the album. Rather, the band seems to be following a soft rock formula aiming for the emotional, melodramatic teenage audience, but at the same time staying away from the musical tendencies that would characterize Augustana as a flat-out emo band, which they are not. With the formula accordingly come the catchy hooks that make the genre popular and instantly likable to many. With that in mind, Augustana, for better or worse, are traveling a well-trodden path.


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