Monday, January 3, 2011

The Go-Betweens - Band Introduction

There's white magic, and bad rock'n'roll,
Your friend there says, he's the gatekeeper to my soul

If the essence of good music to you is a good song well-delivered, then the Go-Betweens are the perfect band.  And I do mean perfect in a literal sense:  of the nine albums they recorded during their three decade long career (six between 1981 and 1988; three more after their 2000 to 2005 reunion), not only is not a single one of those albums remotely bad, but there's scarcely a single instance of a bad song in their entire recorded output.  Oh sure, there are some awkward songs on their not-quite-surefooted debut, but they have their quirky charms, and everyone's entitled to their gangly adolesence.  And they may have the boring and/or unmemorable song here and there, but those songs more often than not don't turn out to be boring or unmemorable on second glance; it's the unavoidable nodding off that happens when subjected to an entire album of songs of a roughly even quality delivered in a more or less uniform style.  And that, my friends, is the paradoxical flipside of mastering your craft a little too perfectly.  One wishes for a dabbling genre experiment to break the monotony, even if - especially if - it's rotten.   But I'm quibbling, and quibbling as a music critic, not a music fan:   when sitting down to review their ouvre, what am I going to write about?  Their career arc is not one of peaks and valleys, but of a steady, even plateau.  That's not to say that some of their albums weren't clearly better than some of the others; it's just that, once they'd jettisoned the jittery new wave affectations of their debut and grown up for the second album, the Go-Betweens settled cozily down for one of the most remarkably consistent bodies of work ever.  You can go ahead and read my reviews, but if you're a beginner, you wouldn't do too badly if you just grabbed the first Go-Betweens album you stumble across and start there, wherever it is (as long as it's not the debut or the pre-debut lost album of early demos).  Though I would start with 16 Lovers' Lane, as nearly every other critic recommends, too.

To refer to the Go-Betweens as critical darlings is a bit of an understatement; they seem tailor-made for the sensibilities of rock critics, minus the 'rock' part. It's not as if they never tried to rock, they just never did so more than mildly.  Their music consisted of simple, sturdy folk-pop, influences primarily but by no means exclusively the third Velvet Underground album and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and the acoustic-guitar based numbers on the Beatles' Rubber Soul.  Offering nothing remotely new or innovative, the Go-Betweens 'merely' took the raw materials of the singer-songwriter genre and chiseled it to perfection.  Robert Forster and Grant McLennan were obviously not musical geniuses, four to five chords or bust master craftsmen they were.  Craftsmanship gets it right:  their songs feel like handcarved wood.  Think of their best songs as pieces of painstakingly crafted and polished pieces of high quality furniture, sturdily constructed the old-fashioned way:  their songs may not be immediately catchy, but are instead built to last, not like plastic flash-in-the-glam pop ephemera.

Which goes to explain why they never did more than crack the Top 100 charts even in their native Australia (some of the albums sold fairly well, but hit singles - nada).   It may sound like a cliche to speculate that their songs were a mite too thoughtful, mature, and subtle for a mainstream pop audience, but it's the truth:  the Go-Betweens' hooks were too often on the wrong side of modesty.  Which isn't to say that the hooks aren't there.  They're just subtle.  Which, contrarily, makes relistening to their albums such a pleasurable delight; you notice new things, small and sometimes big touches every time out, and songs that you'd previously subconsciously passed over suddenly pull you in on the eighth, twelfth, fourteenth listen.  Theirs is music for the long haul.  Which goes to explain one reason they're so beloved by critics and seasoned music fans and record collectors: ah, here is a quality record that at the end of the day I can sit down and relax to, and yet at the same time pore over the intelligent, highly literate lyrics and discover some fresh new aspect of the album every time I listen to it.  Pop?  Oh, most definitely.  Pop fluff?  The opposite of fluffy, tis.

A little biographical data to round off this intro, then.  The Go-Betweens were essentially Robert Forster and Grant McLennan,, songwriting duo extraordinaire.  They did have other members, obviously:  most important was drummer Lindy Morrison (lover of Forster) and by the latter half of the '80s they'd recruited violinist Amanda Brown (who quickly became McLennan's lover after joining).  Both pairs broke up eventually, fueling their indie-pop answer to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, 1988's 16 Lovers' Lane.   Roughly speaking, the tall, gangly Forster played the Lennon role with his more angular and wittily literate tunes, while the more round-bodied and cuddly, prematurely-balding McLennan took the McCartney route with somewhat softer and more immediately pop-melodic songs.  However, it takes a determined Go-Betweens scholar to tell the difference, as their singing voices are indistinguishable and their songwriting styles while complementary are closer to kissing siblings than cousins.  The band split up in 1989, and both Forster and McLennan released several respectable and critically acclaimed solo albums in '90s.  They reconstituted their partnership during the start of the 21st century and discovered that since their breakup, their cult had grown by word of mouth and critical hosannas to the point that the Go-Betweens were now more popular than ever, with their final album in 2005 their best-selling yet.  On the verge of finally achieving a bit of popular success to add to their lengthy tenure of critical acclaim (which is nice and all, but doesn't pay the bills), Grant McLennan went upstairs to take a nap one afternoon and never woke again, suffering a heart attack at the tragically young age of 48.   And thus ended once and for all the greatest songwriting partnership ever witnessed in the Antipodes, a claim I can assert with perfect assurance and not the whiff of hyperbole.

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