Local quintet Augustine's soon to be released album Broadcast comes on slow. Droning tones swell in and out of discord over gurgling electronics and white noise. Steady, catchy drums drop into the mix, riding the sonic collage and shaping it as deftly as one of Stereolab's experiments. Just when things start to get good and weird, there's a sudden course change as three brightly tuned guitars crash through the futuristic burbling and launch into a riff that calls to mind the Flaming Lips in their Clouds Taste Metallic heyday, while Toby Vest's haunting, breathy vocals come on like the freakish progeny of Robert Smith and Morrissey raised on a steady diet of Bob Dylan and Blue Oyster Cult.
Broadcast is presented not as a collection of songs but as a series of movements in a grand pop symphony that merits a spiritual comparison to the Olivia Tremor Control's fantastic Black Foliage.
Locally speaking, Augustine's worldly-wise rock strikes a perfect balance between the Glass' operatic squall and the gothier end of the Satyrs' spectrum. What's not so easy is explaining how Augustine's transparent sound transcends pastiche and charts new territory for Memphis rock-and-roll.
"It's always more about aesthetic," Toby Vest says of his influences. "It's what a band represents, not what they sound like. I'm conscious about the overall mood of a song. A band's ability to set a mood or create an emotion influences me a whole lot more than a guitar riff. I'll ask myself, how do you set that mood or get that emotion, before I'll [lift] a riff."
Augustine's roots are in Marion, Arkansas, where the Vest brothers, Toby and Jake, grew up learning to play their instruments together.
"We didn't have any training. We just went looking for Web sites that had guitar tabs," Jake says, praising Olga, an expansive guitar tab and lyrics database.
Augustine became a five-piece with the addition of Jeff Schmidtke on guitar, Preston Todd on drums, and Dirk Kitterkin on bass. The band was officially born in December 2003, when they started playing regular gigs at the Caravan, where they were often incongruously paired with hardcore bands. "We played a lot of shows at the Caravan," Toby says. "It was the only place that would give us gigs."
Augustine also recorded a demo, which they took to Easley-McCain's Kevin Cubbins to master. After hearing the finished product they decided it was time to get serious and get into the studio. The idea was right, and Cubbins, sonic architect behind Cory Branan's The Hell You Say and the Glass' Hibernation, couldn't have been a better choice, but Augustine's timing was terrible. Although the band's recordings were spared when Easley burned, the fire delayed completion of Broadcast by nearly a year. To finish the album, Cubbins took the band to the same cabin in Heber Springs, Arkansas, where the Glass re-recorded Hibernation after their original tracks were wiped out in the blaze.
As it turns out, Hibernation and Broadcast have a lot in common. Both are beautifully nervous, nearly paranoid, and lushly impressionistic documents of life during wartime. Both sound like the work of bands that have walked through the fire and survived.
"We don't write songs about girlfriends," Toby says, repeating almost verbatim what Glass frontman Brad Bailey said when Hibernation was released. And, like Bailey, Toby says his songs' darker edges are a response to how America has changed since 9/11.
"It's not really political, but it's socially aware," Toby says of Broadcast, a record that uses broad pop strokes to paint a pre-Orwellian picture of a world where church bells are always ringing and the neighbors listen at every door.
"I do a kind of William S. Burroughs thing," Toby says of his songwriting process. "I don't just sit down and write a song. I get an idea and I write it down, and later I start putting these ideas together." Though far less caustic than Burroughs, Toby's songs come on like a series of noirish images built into bright, inviting melodies that turn imperceptibly tense.
Augustine CD Release Party
Friday, December 9th, at the Hi-Tone Café. Doors open at 9 p.m.; admission is $5. Local band Antique Curtains open.