I like The Go-Betweens. LIKE. I want to emphasize the word again: I LIKE the Go-Betweens. (Pee Wee reference). That liking will likely never, however, spill over into love. This is a solid band of likable gentlemen, and it contains two likable songwriters: the artsier Tom Verlaine worshipping Robert Forster, and the popper Paddy McAloon worshipper Grant McLennan. I don’t know if these guys really worshipped Verlaine and McAloon, but they sure sound like them much of the time. And here’s the thing: this is a difficult band to pin down sonically. They’re in that indie pop, post-Velvets pre-college rock zone: there’s a bit of new wave, post-punk, romantic 80s, and jangle pop, and it all stews together into what might be called “Pleasant Adult-Oriented Hipster Music.” They’re not going into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame anytime soon (thank God), but they were a respectable and consistent group, always focused on the song, always pining for emotional impact, and rarely falling flat. But….due to their professionalism…they can also be incredibly boring.
Send Me A Lullaby
Before Hollywood *
Spring Hill Fair *
Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express
16 Lovers Lane
The Friends Of Rachel Worth
Bright Yellow Bright Orange
SEND ME A LULLABY (1982)
The oft-neglected debut of these Aussie pop heroes lies somewhere between early Talking Heads, poppy Pere Ubu, and Minutemen. Though it surely ain’t hard to hear the seeds of the band’s classic sound sewn all over the place here, it’s nonetheless a formative work, and ultimately a “fans only” affair. Firstly, Forster is the only leading presence on this platter, which means it’s all nervous and new wave-y and fractured. Their romantic soft folk-pop side is nowhere in evidence. Melodically, the band would improve immensely on later releases, though they would sterilize their sound a bit (this is the closest thing they ever cut to a truly jagged post-punk new wave pop record). Everything is fun and energetic and tight, but nothing REALLY stands out – the songs don’t have strong enough hooks to leave an impression. “Ride,” opener “Your Turn, My Turn,” and especially the very pretty “Hold Your Horses,” come CLOSE to the classic years in quality, but they mostly sound like a promising band finding its feet. A decent listen, then, but hardly essential.
BEFORE HOLLYWOOD (1983)
Generally looked upon as the first proper Go-Betweens record, this new wave beauty is a refinement and furthering of the debut’s ideas. It’s the first of their albums to hit on the dual songwriting/singing formula of its two frontmen, wavering as it does between sweet 80s pop songs and jagged New Wave art rockers. Generally, Robert Forster handles the Tom Verlaine-artsy songs, and Graham McLennan the more relaxed and friendly indie pop tunes. I will now announce, early on in these reviews, that I am a much much bigger fan of the edgy hip punky stylings of Forster than I am of the romantic 80s sophisto-pop stylings of McLennan. Grant has his share of winners, and it isn’t always such an obvious divide, but if you are later upset by a perceived bias, I hope my early confession eases your pain a smudge. This album opens with two great weird art rockers, especially all time classic “Two Steps Step Out,” but then loses a lot of steam for the rest of the A-side with the ugly title track and dull piano dirge “Dusty in Here.” The B side may be the best sustained sequence on a Go-Betweens album, kicking off with their gorgeous single “Cattle and Cane,” (probably McLennan’s best ever moment), and peaking with the brooding melodic new wave rocker “As Long As That.” This is one of the better and least dated albums in the catalog, though the overall sound still owes more to the 70s art rock scene than the 80s new romantic scene. One more note: McLennan was still playing bass at this point, and his odd melodic style lends the band far more personality and edge than the playing on their later records.
SPRING HILL FAIR (1984)
This struck me immediately as their best album, though that doesn’t seem to be the consensus with the fans. It’s clearly a transitional record, straddling their early art rocking inclinations and their wimpier rootsy 80s indie pop ones. But that means we get a newfound simple writing/arranging confidence without the band veering too far into dull jangle folk territory. There’s a new bass player, lush expansive arrangements, and some of the biggest monster hooks in the entire catalog. That bass player element is disappointing – the new bottom feeder lacks the odd melodic new wave stylings of McClennan. But…it don’t matter too much! Forster’s “Man O’ Sand To Girl O’ Sea” is one of the great forgotten 80s anthemic classics. He also brought to the studio a tune that may be my all time favorite track by the band – “Draining The Pool For You,” a mid-tempo Patti Smith-ian folk rocking tune with a gorgeous melody and aching vocal performance. McClennan is going hard into pop – opener “Bachelor Kisses” sounds almost exactly like Prefab Sprout! There’s only one misstep here – the boring spoken word “experiment” “River of Money” – otherwise this is a very underrated and major playing 80s pop album.
LIBERTY BELLE AND THE BLACK DIAMOND EXPRESS (1986)
This is where things get hairy for me. Perhaps hairy is the wrong word, as that implies a growing of hair upon the chests of Sirs Forster and McClennan. But actually this is where the muscle of the early records gives way to a limper strummy indie jangle folk sound, a sound seemingly most cherished by their fans. The band has, according to rock critic bullshit parlance, “matured.” Everything here is professionally rendered, the songs are well written, the production is polished (if a bit too boomy 80s), and everybody seems confident. The problem is that too much of this is just straight and boring. The new wavy unpredictable oddities of the early records are entirely gone, and the energetic Television vibes replaced mostly by singer-songwriter type fare. Forster remains an interesting writer, as evidenced by the opener “Spring Rain,” by far the album’s best tune and a highlight in the Go-Betweens catalog. But ‘The Wrong Road” drags on for 5 minutes without a particularly unique melody or atmosphere, and simple pop songs like “To Reach Me” and “Bow Down” don’t hit particularly hard with their normal sounding hooks and overly preened production. The resonant and pretty final track “Apology Accepted” points the way to “16 Lovers Lane,” – “Twin Layers of Lightening” shows a bit of Forster’s old ambition (his “Head Full Of Steam” sounds like Tom Verlaine fronting The Heartbreakers). The record grew on me a bit, but I still can’t shake that initial feeling of disappointing boredom.
A retreat back to darker and artsier territories, though we’re deeper into the 80s and the band’s taste has grown even more Smiths-y jangle poppy and atmospheric (thus, less new wave poppy and energetic). This is the sour point for many fans, though I can’t really understand why they like it less than the albums surrounding it – these guys are generally pretty consistent and they don’t waver tonally or sonically all that much at this point. This is the closest the band came to a “goth” record, hints of Nick Cave and brooding biblical darkness coloring such jams as “The Clarke Sisters” and “The House That Jack Kerouac Built.” The record does sport the only truly obvious misfire in the band’s early catalog – “Cut It Out,” an ill-advised groovy 80s big drum….uh…dance song? It’s crass and dated, and has no place in the otherwise classy Go-Between catalog. My favorite track on this one belongs to McClennan – his “Someone Else’s Wife” goes from a desolate verse to a gorgeous Prefab Sprout-y chorus, and never loses focus or tension. Forster turns in a killer pop track with “I Just Get Caught Out,” beating Arcade Fire to their exact sound decades earlier. Why that wasn’t a huge hit I do not understand. Overall this record is better than I expected, though tunes like “Hope Then Strife” and dull opener “Right Here” nearly put me to sleep, and the overall atmosphere feels too shiny and 80s to really make a major impression. Still – as always with this band, professionalism and cool singing carry the weight farther than it may have gone otherwise.
16 LOVERS LANE (1988)
Seemingly every critic and fan’s go-to Go-Betweens album. Oddly, however, this isn’t actually all that representative of the band’s sound and past. It’s a sad breakup album, the band’s “Blood On The Tracks,” if you will, full of broken love songs and folky strummers. OK, it’s their “Rumours,” then. It often pushes for atmosphere and heart-wrenching emoting over melody and hooks, as can be evidenced by borderline dated 80s dream-pop tunes like “Quiet Heart” and “Clouds.” The latter in particular lumbers along for 4 minutes and barely registers to me as a song proper. The A-side here IS quite mesmerizing, however. Opener “Love Goes On” is a gorgeous perfectly written pop tune. Forster’s “Love Is A Sign” is very Dylan, and a major grower. On the B-side, the afore-mentioned “Clouds” drags things down a bit, but the closer “Dive For Your Memory” is one of the band’s rawest and most heartfelt recordings. As everybody considers this the band’s masterpiece, I tried to get into it for years, failing to understand the appeal of these guys. On first listen this sounded too 80s, too samey and sleepy, and lacking personality. But its charms are subtle, and the elegance of the tunes sneaks up if you give the record some time to seep into your heart. It’s not their best, but it’s the most direct and emotive the band ever got, and that’s likely led to its lofty perch at the top of the catalog for most.
THE FRIENDS OF RACHEL WORTH (2000)
ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Lo and behold, to the surprise of fans all over the globe in Aussie coffee shops, the boys reunited. Of course, it was just the two frontmen plopping down tracks with Portland, Oregon indie musicians, mainly the ladies from Sleater Kinney. Do they bring the goods? In a word: no. I’ve read some glowing reviews of this record, reviews that claim this band’s comeback years were every bit as good as their prime years. I frankly can’t imagine someone thinking that about THIS album, as it’s mostly dull strummy adult pop lacking much arrangement or melodic interest. McClennan’s tracks here are nearly insufferably boring, with borderline cornball duds like opener “Magic In Here” that barely qualify as hip indie music (an essential ingredient to the band’s legacy). Forster, luckily, remains indebted enough to Lou, Patti, and Tommy Verlaine to make sure his tracks at least feature cool vocal performances, though he overdoes it when he directly references the latter two on closing tune “When She Sang About Angels.” My favorite track is the rocking Malkmus-y (is he on there?) “German Farmhouse,” basically the only track with a pulse and sense of playfulness. Too much of this drags on without focus or bite – it’s all tasteful and …fine, but these tunes wouldn’t cut it as outtakes on the band’s earlier records.
BRIGHT YELLOW BRIGHT ORANGE (2003)
Luckily, the band recovered. This is miles much better than the first comeback album, and nearly as good as their late 80s adult-jangle trilogy. Boredom and sleepiness kicks in too hard at times, but half the album is as good as the last three classic era albums. They’ve hired some solid players this time around, which fits the sound much better than that ragged Sleater Kinney vibe. AND….AND…the good songs are particularly wonderful here. “Caroline and I,” Forster’s sweet and melodic opener, is easily one of the band’s best ever pop songs, and maybe the greatest single track of the comeback period. McClennan gets in some whoppers too, particularly “Old Mexico,” which is actually edgier than anything Forster brought to the table this time around. A few tracks fail to make an impression, and Forster’s folky “Too Much Of One Thing” drags on a few minutes too long, even though it opens with one of the band’s more memorable stanzas: “You might think you see a purpose when what you’re seeing is a band,” As always, pleasures are minor and positive qualities are subtle. It takes a few listens to get past boredom with this band and dig into the beauty and nuance beneath the seemingly dull arrangements and melodies. There is substance to be mined though, and this one has got some gems.
OCEANS APART (2005)
Sadly, the band’s last effort: McClennan tragically passed away soon after its completion. This may be the best of the comeback efforts overall. It’s the darkest and moodiest of the later albums, and feels weightier than many of their records. The first run of 6 songs on here rival the band’s best work, and that patch climaxes with the epic “Darlinghurst Nights,” which has to battle it out with “Caroline and I” for best comeback Go-Betweens track. It’s a big hooky Forster-sung centerpiece, with a dynamic arrangement and memorable lyrics. I never bore of it during its over 6 minute running length, a major feat for this usually boring group! Here’s the bad news: the last 4 songs may as well be lobbed off completely, they’re so much less interesting than the rest of the record. I can barely remember a single thing about them. The McClennan sung “This Night’s For You” sounds like it belongs on Genesis’ “Calling All Stations” album. That means it’s bad and hokey and plodding. And it is! But this is worth hearing for the first half, and certainly a decent note for the band to bow out on.