Review: We Are Augustines – Rise Ye Sunken Ships

Published on March 13th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams

Rise Ye Sunken Ships… Wreck-ord of the Week!

A debut album of sorts, given that it was originally conceived as the second album of the Brooklyners’ previous incarnation Pela, Rise Ye Sunken Ships bears the battle scars of that band’s dissolution, the ensuing legal wrangles, and most poignantly the suicides of singer/guitarist Billy McCarthy’s mother and brother, both of whom had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Suffice it to say this is not the easiest of listens, but the emotional explorations and downright epic performances on show here are worthy of far more consideration than was afforded them in this spectacularly tasteless NME review. (Lisa Wright; take your job a bit more seriously in future, “yeah”?)

Dave Newfeld’s widescreen production has captured Rocksucker’s imagination before on Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It in People and Super Furry AnimalsHey Venus!, and the extra added raspiness applied to Rise Ye Sunken Ships thrills us anew. However, it would amount to little without some quality raw materials to work with, so it’s a good job that We Are Augustines are capable of conjuring gargantuan slabs of heart-wrenching melody. It may not be all that original – indeed, it frequently recalls early Arcade Fire and others of that ilk – but McCarthy’s guttural, on-the-verge-of-breakdown vocals work a treat in tandem with a set of songs that are infused with a lot more hope than the devastating back-story would suggest.

“Chapel Song”
Opener “Chapel Song” declares this album’s intentions with pounding drums, alternating guitar couplets and eventually a big old ray of sunshine in the form of harmonising trumpets, while “Augustine” is liable to choke you up with its refrain of “Keep your head up, kid / I know you can swim / But you’ve got to move your legs”.  “Headlong into the Abyss” and “Book of James” must sound wonderful in a live setting, each repeating the trick of a late brass section intervention but doing so with sufficient majesty as to keep you in thrall to it, the latter descending – nay, ascending – into a dizzying cacophony that plays a central role in the tension-and-release dynamic prevalent across these twelve tracks.

The gently shuffling strum of “East Los Angeles” belies a devastatingly close-to-the-bone narrative of McCarthy seeing his brother’s face from the top of a Ferris wheel, while the infectious chorus of “Juarez” (“Lord, I see red / And I’m praying on my bed / Got a drunk old mother / And a sinful brother”) could make it a hit single in a parallel universe where raw confessional is prized over Katy Perry merrily singing about drinking herself into a stupor.

By the time “Philadelphia (The City of Brotherly Love)” rolls out the trusty driving guitars/pounding drums combo, you realise that gratuitous experimentation would actually be detrimental to the flight of these emotional darts; “New Drink for the Old Drunk” certainly goes for the jugular, “You waste all your days / In the dark, in your corner” seemingly referencing the four years of solitary confinement enforced upon McCarthy’s late brother, while even the appealing, single-worthy guitar skank of “Strange Days” conceals a lyric about a girl leaving, probably never to return.

“Book of James”
“Barrel of Leaves” is comfortably the album’s calmest moment, McCarthy singing the “Why do you pack your parachute / With a thousand-ton weight?” over gently trotting piano ballad that could have nestled snugly into the middle of Grandaddy‘s The Sophtware Slump, while curtain-closer “The Instrumental” – funnily enough, an instrumental – sounds positively cheerful in relation to what’s gone before, riding gently off into the sunrise like The Flaming Lips’ “Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon”, notwithstanding a vaguely unsettling mélange of strange voices bubbling away underneath it all.

All in all, Rise Ye Sunken Ships may tick some fairly obvious boxes, but if you can bear the sheer gravity of the subject matter then you shall be rewarded with frequent moments of elation. Rocksucker for one looks forward to seeing where We Are Augustines go next.

Rocksucker says: Eight Quails out of Ten!
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Rise Ye Sunken Ships is out now on Oxcart Records. For more information, including a list of live dates, please visit weareaugustines.com or the band’s Facebook page.

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About the Author

Editor of Rocksucker and the website's founder, Jonny is passionate about the music he listens to, both good and bad, as well as interviewing his favourite musicians.