One of the most critically respected and cultily adored neo-pop bands to emerge from Australia, Brisbane’s Go- Betweens began in 1977 as a Dylan-inflected duo but was a more original-sounding trio by the time it recorded Send Me a Lullaby. With shades of Television and the Cure, the cool (but not chilly) LP offers a charming view that isn’t overly pop—no slick gimmickry here—and songs that are more fascinating lyrically than melodically. Remarkably, the band’s jagged, slightly coarse guitar sound has little trouble accommodating occasional intrusive blurts of blank sax noise. Very Quick on the Eye is a collection of outtakes and demos, some of which made it onto Lullaby.
Before Hollywood is a major improvement — more tunefulness, stronger harmonies, less stridency — suggesting R.E.M. and Aztec Camera a bit. The Go-Betweens, however, are clearly not just like anybody. Outstanding tracks are “Two Steps Step Out,” “Dusty in Here” and the utterly wonderful, airy “Cattle and Cane.” A marvelous, invigorating record.
Four Go-Betweens recorded the more mellifluous Springhill Fair in France, making it so smooth and well-ordered that it verges on commercialism. The group still makes genteel pop music, but it’s colored here with guest keyboards, strings, horns and even (gasp!) synthesizer. Fortunately, the Go-Betweens write such musically pleasant, lyrically fascinating and intelligent songs that even creeping complexity and slickness can’t seriously damage their appeal.
Liberty Belle leaves a few more rough edges intact than its predecessor. The songwriting is again sharp and the sound nicely augmented with light touches of strings, vibes, bassoon, accordion and Tracey Thorn’s backing vocals—all without even approaching over-production. (The CD adds two numbers.) Metals and Shells is a get-acquainted compilation for America. The Able Label Singles reissues the band’s two earliest 45s: “the first four songs we ever recorded.”
Tallulah sounds like a stab at creating an essential yuppie acquisition. There isn’t anything very different going on, it’s just so much slicker and more professional-sounding than ever before. Now a five-piece, they’ve incorporated a violinist/oboist who adds relatively little. Songwriters Grant McLennan and Robert Forster are not in top form, a state especially obvious on “The House That Jack Kerouac Built,” a song that ought to be a lot livelier and possess sharper lyrics to invoke such a venerated name.
That album was evidently a weak moment, as 16 Lovers Lane proffers ten bittersweet, smart relationship songs of Forster and McLennan at their most lyrically acute. The music is even more impressive, replacing Tallulah‘s gloss with a clean but intimate sound, effectively incorporating Amanda Brown’s violin and oboe into the mesh of Forster and McLennan’s intertwined guitars. Amid such consistent quality, highlights include the single “Was There Anything I Could Do?” and “You Can’t Say No Forever” (“My world’s tumbling down / Stone by stone to the ground / Please take out the garbage”). This one really works.
Having reached such a high point, the Go-Betweens went their separate ways in early 1990. The posthumous 1978—1990 (two discs on vinyl, one CD) collects album tracks, singles, a radio session item and one outtake—22 songs in all. Like any set of this type, the selection is debatable. The final two albums, for instance, are represented by such weak cuts as, respectively, “The House That Jack Kerouac Built” and “Streets of Your Town.”
A decade later, with ex-Go-Betweens bassist Robert Vickers on the staff of a New York City independent label, Jetset, Go-Betweens releases began flowing again. 78 ‘Til 79: The Lost Album is a collection of early singles and home demos.
As Forster points out in the liner notes to the band’s second career retrospective, Bellavista Terrace, the Go-Betweens never had any proper hits, in America or abroad. That’s both baffling and understandable after listening to this collection: the songs are so melodic and well-crafted that they sound like hits, but the lyrics—sometimes earnest, sometimes coy; always intelligent—are too idiosyncratic for ’80s sensibilities. Still, one has to wonder why the Smiths could make a chart career out of it and these guys couldn’t. Each of the proper studio albums except Send Me a Lullaby is represented by several tracks; although the sequencing is non-chronological, the consistent quality and vision provide a nearly flawless overview of the band’s most accessible moments, from “Cattle and Cane” to “Dive for Your Memory.” Although both “Kerouac” and “Streets of Your Town” reappear, their relative weakness is balanced by stronger songs like “Bye Bye Pride” and “Was There Anything I Could Do.” A great place to start exploring this remarkable band.
After many years working apart, McLennan and Forster toured together in 1999. The following year, they reconvened the Go-Betweens and released The Friends of Rachel Worth. With backing from members of Sleater-Kinney, the album instantly trumps anything in either man’s solo canon. From the opening jangle of “Magic in Here,” this is thoughtful, melodic pop that makes no concessions to the musical trends of the previous decade. The arrangements are less complex than on Tallulah or 16 Lovers Lane; though the do-it-yourself production isn’t always suited to such mature songwriting, the songs always win out. McLennan and Forster deal intelligently with relationships and middle age without ever approaching adult contemporary dross. Forster, in particular, is in top form—the reflective “He Lives My Life” is among his best-ever work. While not as invigorating as the band’s past catalogue, the record is an impressively worthy addition it.
Bright Yellow Bright Orange was recorded with McLennan and Forster’s touring band, and the resulting chemistry provides a huge jolt of energy: the rhythms are snappier, the melodies more assured. Everything about this album is vibrant. Where Rachel Worth sounded like an experiment gone right, Bright Yellow exudes confidence. It doesn’t hurt that the songs are uniformly solid. On “Caroline and I,” Forster muses about being “born in the very same year” as Monaco’s Princess Caroline, with typically witty, intriguing results: “It gave me something small that I could feel.” McLennan provides two further highlights in the wistful “Poison in the Walls” and the inspiring “Old Mexico,” which takes a jaunty verse and pours it into a beautiful chorus in which McLennan encourages the subject to “turn the lights off…you’ll be blinded.” Bright Yellow features some of the barbed guitar lines that punctuated the Go-Betweens’ first few albums, while an occasional organ adds color to the clean, uncluttered production. More than conclusive proof that McLennan’s and Forster’s reunion was a good idea, the album is a career high-point for both men.
McLennan died in his sleep at home in Brisbane on May 6, 2006. He was 48.