Having released their first album, A Living And A Dying Game, August Wells – the duo of Kenneth Griffin, late of Rollerskate Skinny, on guitar and John Rauchenberger on piano – return with their sophomore effort Madness Is The Mercy. The album builds on their debut with solid songwriting and consistent production but, unfortunately, doesn’t go far enough in developing the group’s sound.
That’s not to say that there aren’t positive aspects to the album. Kenneth Griffin’s voice has a certain winsome charm, intermittently almost sounding like a lovelorn lead character in a Rogers and Hammerstein musical. His voice is the star of the show here, his broad baritone lending weight to, what at times, are lightweight lyrics. His voice can’t do all the heavy lifting though and that’s where the problems begin.
Coming up to the halfway point of the album, you could become fatigued by the lack of depth and variety to the aforementioned lyrics. Lines from one song could easily be exchanged with those from another, much the same as the names referenced in many of the tracks, and whether or not anybody would notice becomes a recurring thought. The lyrics lack depth to the extent that the stories unfolding are without context or direction – who are these people that have compelled August Wells to pen tribute? Where do their stories go? Three songs in a row – ‘This Man Cries’, ‘She Was A Question’ and ‘Bread And Water’ – reference waking up in their very first line. It’s hard to tell whether that’s intentional or an oversight but it certainly doesn’t help when trying to distinguish songs from each other.
A factor that adds to aural fatigue is that the production rarely varies. There’s a tinkle of notes on the piano here, a sparse horn melody doubled by guitar there, maybe the occasional tasteful use of percussion. This is all colourful in theory but nothing stands out as these same flourishes are applied to each and every song.
The craft put into making this album is evident but much of the work seems too considered, too safe and overthought. There’s little spark or impetus to this collection of songs. Ultimately this is a mild mannered, carefully constructed album that doesn’t dare to try anything out of the ordinary. August Wells are thrall to their classic antecedents but at no point do they come close to stepping out of their shadow.