Sunday, March 6, 2016

Augustana - Life Imitating Life

Back in 2005, few things were further out of vogue than folk and Americana. The years where bands like The Wallflowers and Counting Crows could score radio hits with songs like “One Headlight” and “Mr. Jones” were far in the rearview, not because listeners were trying to distance themselves from the sound and feel of the 90s (on the contrary, the two top singles of 2005 were brought by Mariah Carey and Gwen Stefani, both divas from the decade before), but because the styles of folk, alt-country, Americana, and whatever else related to them now rang more like classic rock than contemporary mainstream fare.

As a result, the odds of a band like Augustana breaking through and finding mainstream success seemed pretty slim at the time, regardless of the fact that their major label debut, called All the Stars and Boulevards, was produced by Springsteen veteran Brendan O’Brien and backed by Epic Records. Somehow though, the tinkling piano keys and east coast/west coast dichotomy of “Boston” found a place on the radio (and during the coda scenes of god knows how many TV shows), and pop-tinged Americana was suddenly (if briefly) back in the public consciousness. The band rode the success of “Boston” into 2007 at least, and despite the fact that the song only made it to number 34 on the Billboard Hot 100, it was everywhere for so long that, to this day, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t know it.

The rest of All the Stars and Boulevards, from the radiant dusk-folk balladry of “Sunday Best” to the apocalyptic reverie of “California’s Burning,” showed promise, but didn’t reach the heights of the single. Part of the problem was O’Brien, who didn’t seem to know whether to produce the band as a rock ‘n’ roll outfit or a country band. In addition, frontman Dan Layus was evidently struggling to find his voice. Luckily, the longevity and momentum of “Boston” gave the band the time and freedom they needed to write and record an album that better encapsulated their sound and influences under a single cohesive umbrella. The result was 2008’s Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt, an utterly splendid set of songs that represented the kind of quantum leap forward that is so rare to hear on a post-breakthrough sophomore album. The songs were better, the production more organic, and Layus was suddenly slinging high notes and fierce vocal delivery like the best in the business. A minor hit in the form of “Sweet and Low” kept the band on the radio, but for those of us listening outside the mainstream, Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt became a new favorite record because it showed a young band that had found its direction, located its voice, and marked itself as an artist to watch.

But then it all went wrong.

It took three years for the band to deliver a follow-up, and when they did – in the form of 2011’s self-titled record – most of the good will from “Boston” had finally dissipated. The album underperformed in the mainstream, die-hard fans found it a letdown after the superior Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt, and Epic Records soon dropped Augustana from its roster. By November, the band’s five members had parted ways and the project was over. Just like that, all of the promise of the sophomore record evaporated into thin air.

If the break-up had a positive effect, it was that it turned the once-disappointing self-titled album into a poignant swansong. While I had personally never disliked the record, it grew on me that fall to a point where I ultimately placed it on my year-end “best of 2011” list. When it seemed like Augustana was done and would never release another album, songs like “On the Other Side” and “You Were Made for Me” played like fitting conclusions to the story that had begun with “Boston.” And when Dan Layus announced that he would be continuing on with the Augustana moniker by himself, despite the departure of his bandmates, the self-titled record took on yet another feel, one of resilience and victory captured so perfectly in the album’s centerpiece anthem, “Shot in the Dark.”

Now here we are in 2014, another springtime, another Augustana record three years in the making. The LP, called Life Imitating Life, is not only the first Augustana album recorded as a solo album, but also the first one since 2003’s pre-fame Midwest Skies and Sleepless Mondays to be created and released away from the major label system. The resulting album is the most versatile and adventurous set of songs that Layus has written to date, sprinting from haunting urban textures (the far-off “is it too late” vocal loop at the top of “Ash and Ember”) to the carefree, throwback sunshine pop of “Love in the Air” (which sounds a bit like “Mary’s Place” or “Let’s Be Friends,” two of the more euphoric and luxuriant tracks from Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising). We get anthems in the making (“Youth is Wasted on the Young,” as evidenced by the song’s bulletproof title) and something akin to a power ballad (the soaring, heart-on-the-sleeve swells of “Say You Want Me”), all before collapsing into the wistful folk-pop symphony that gives the album its title (“According to Plan,” which plays a bit like the more somber cousin to the last album’s lazy country lullaby, “Borrowed Time”).

After the self-titled record’s more straightforward pop rock textures, it’s great to hear Layus get back to more eclectic territory. Part of the reason that Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt was such a pleasure was that it encompassed everything from arena rock to hook-laden pop, from sensitive piano balladry to southern rock and alt-country. Here, Layus is back to a place where he’s trying to create entirely different moods with every single song, and while the first half is solid – with the singles (“Ash and Ember” and “Youth is Wasted on the Young”) and a pair of summer-y AM pop throwbacks (“Love in the Air,” “Need a Little Sunshine”) driving the momentum – it’s the second half where the album truly hits its stride. For instance, the propulsive “I Really Think So” employs a driving drumbeat and a sing-along chorus that recall the 90s folk-rock bands Augustana was playing off of on their first record, while the piano-and-strings wash of “Fit Together” makes for another nice love song from a songwriter who has always excelled at them.

Still, Life Imitating Life doesn’t approach the heights of Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt until its final moments, as Layus saves the finest two tracks on for last. First up is “Alive,” a song that Layus has been playing at live shows for over a year now. Though the live version of the song was a stripped down acoustic affair, the album take is all about visceral, stadium-sized emotion. Piano and strings again provide the bulk of the backdrop, but it’s the vocal performance – one of Layus’s best – that sells the song and its indelible, sky-is-the-limit hook. “We are unstoppable, we are unbreakable, we are invincible and I feel alive with you,” Layus wails on the chorus. His voice made huge strides on Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt, but here, it plumbs new depths of feeling and force, and you can bet that “Alive” will earn its spot on plenty of lovelorn mixtapes and wedding playlists as a result. Some will yearn for the calmer intimacy of the acoustic version, but for this album – especially in the penultimate slot – the grandiose rewrite works.

“Alive” could have been the album closer, but instead, it sets the stage for a song that is even better. The album’s grand finale comes on “Remember Me,” and despite the fact that it’s little more than reverb-drenched vocals and simple piano chords, it’s still the most utterly perfect tune that Layus has ever penned. The song is built mostly from the fabric of rhetorical questions, inquiries being asked from beyond the grave or on the brink of death by a narrator who wonders at the legacy he will leave behind for the people he loves. Each verse cuts deeper than the one that came before it, capturing, as Layus mentioned in an interview on this very site, the intense longing that creeps up on you during everyday mundane tasks when you realize, for the umpteenth time, that someone you loved is never coming back. It’s that sense you get when the wind blows and you feel like, for a moment, you aren’t alone anymore, or when the creaks in the stairs sound like the singing voice of someone long gone.

Perhaps the most devastating image comes late in the song, when Layus asks, “Will you stay up late reading books you hate, trying not to fall asleep so you can remember me?” Sometimes, when you’ve lost something for good, be it a loved one or even just a fondly remembered time in your life, you find yourself in a late-night mood where it’s as if you’ve gone back in time. Whether because of a “book you hate,” a song you love, or anything in between, all of us have moments where we feel like we can commune with the past, with loved ones who have left us or with times that have drifted away. And those moments are painful, but they are also comforting, so much so that you try to stay up for as long as you can just so you don’t lose the feeling. Inevitably, you forfeit the battle, and in the morning, everything is the same as it was before: your loved ones are still gone, your past is still in the past, and you have to find a way to carry on again – even though the wounds from those losses have been opened fresh once more.

The ability that Layus has to capture these subtle life moments so perfectly – be they significant or insignificant, happy or sad – is what makes him such a fantastic songwriter, and whether we’re taking about “Remember Me” or any other track on Life Imitating Life, that ability has never been on stronger display. Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt may still go down as the band’s crowning achievement, but if Life Imitating Life is any indication of the music we are going to be hearing from Augustana in the future, then thank goodness Layus kept the moniker alive. Cleary, this “band” still has stories left to tell.

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