Finding their own way

Indie rockers Augustana have grown since their debut, and it shows on the new `Can't Love, Can't Hurt'

May 22, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun pop music critic

For most of the day, Augustana was stuck on the side of a road in Idaho. The pop-rock quintet - bassist Jared Palomar, guitarist Chris Sachtleben, drummer Justin South, vocalist-pianist Dan Layus and keyboard player John Vincent - was en route to a show in Boise when its van broke down. Despite having a major-label contract and scoring a big pop hit with 2005's "Boston," the California band travels like an indie group, and such inconveniences on the road are common.

Now comfortable in a new rental van, it seems Augustana will make the show after all. On the road promoting its sophomore album, Can't Love, Can't Hurt, the group headlines the 9:30 Club tonight in Washington.

"It was a lot of fun to make," Palomar says of the new CD, which came out two weeks ago. "But we still didn't have a lot of time to make it. We've grown up; some of us got married. Those influences helped in writing the album."

Can't Love, Can't Hurt is the follow-up to All the Stars and Boulevards, the band's 2005 debut on Epic/Sony BMG. That album became a hit 19 months after its initial release, thanks to the use of "Boston" on a 2006 episode of Scrubs. The open-hearted ballad, rippling with influences from Keane and Coldplay, became a Top 40 hit.

"We had been on the road when that song started to get play on the radio," Palomar says. "But the success didn't affect what we did on the new record."

On Can't Love, Augustana wisely avoids imitating "Boston." The 10-cut CD is an affable, lovesick mix of piano-based pop ballads and mid-tempo numbers with vague rock overtones. It's a step up from All the Stars, which felt stiff and calculated.

"The first record - there was a lot of input from the producer," Palomar says. "This time, we wanted more of our own vision in the songs. We wanted to write better and be better musicians. This album was a good growing experience."

Before landing the deal with Epic in 2005, Augustana had gone through a few incarnations. The group - whose name was "just made up," Palomar says - formed in southern Illinois in 2002. At the time, Layus and guitarist Josiah Rosen were studying contemporary Christian music at Greenville College.

The original lineup, which also included bassist Simeon Lohrmann, keyboard player David Lamoureaux and drummer Kyle Baker, released two independent CDs. But the college's conservative atmosphere proved too stifling, so Layus and Rosen dropped out in 2004 and moved to Los Angeles to pursue music.

There, the two reformed the band with Sachtleben, Palomar, South and Vincent. The group hadn't performed together long before Epic offered a contract.

"We kinda went in, and we hadn't played a lot of shows," Palomar says. "All of a sudden, we were making a record. We were pretty inexperienced."

And that came through on the debut. The CD, which garnered mixed reviews, lacked personality. Save for the memorable "Boston," the CD sounded like a by-the-numbers pop-rock affair, with obvious influences from Coldplay, Keane and the Counting Crows.

Though a bit hesitant in spots, Can't Love, Can't Hurt glimmers with assured musicianship, and the songs have more bite. The lead single, "Sweet and Low," is indicative of the album's approach: slightly somber with earnest lyrics about relationships.

"We grew a lot as musicians, and that paid off in how we're able to communicate ideas," Palomar says. "It made the process smoother in the studio. We played off each other a lot on stage, and it translated to the studio. But, hey, we still have a lot of growing to do. You can hear some of it now."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

See Augustana at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. N.W., in Washington, at 7:30 tonight. Tickets are $15 and are available at tickets.com or by calling 800-955-5566.

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