Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Go-Betweens - Send Me a Lullaby

Send Me a Lullaby (1981) ***

Imagine a very early Talking Heads reduced to an amateurish power trio attempting the Velvet Underground songbook via the ghosts of (the very much alive) Tom Verlaine and Jonathan Richman, and you're  in the nose of the direction this album is headed.  The sound is very, very bare bones, but not unattractively so; in fact, the sound is what drives this album more than the songwriting, and they had that sparse, angular dry post-punk down cold, fully arrived on their debut.  Which is a curious thing, because the Go-Betweens didn't make their names as a sound band, but as a songwriting duo.  The songs, split more or less evenly between Forster and McLennan, show plenty of promise - promise, not full realization, not just yet.  This is a classic premature debut, the kind of case where a little more woodshedding and demo songwriting before setting out to the recording studio would have been eminently sensible.  As such, it gets despised by the fans, written off by the critics, and disparaged by the band itself as sounding like a practice room session (which, truth be told, it does).  And as often as not in such cases, it's a surprisingly solid debut if entered with underwhelming expectations.  The songs themselves aren't bad, for the most part; they're short and spikey, and demonstrate a craftsmanlike knowledge of the guitar hook, if nothing else.  The trio's arrangements are tastefully and sometimes tastily layered with brisk, crisp drums, meaty and complex bass lines, and jingly guitar strums sprinkled on top.  All in all, it's a pleasant listen, but is there any reason to return to it?  Do any of the songs truly stand out?  McLennan's "One Thing Can Hold Us," thwomps with youthful intensity, and Forster's broodingly lyrical, "Eight Pictures," moodily grips with its tale of incest and adultery.  But even after several listens, it's difficult to tell so many of these songs apart:  the sound is so strong and the songcraft is so (relatively) weak that one song blends into another in samey-same jingle-jangle.  And while the no-wave sax wailing on "People Know," makes that track immediately distinguishable, it's in a highly unpleasant way.  This might not have been so problematic on the original release, which consisted of eight numbers over in a brief 23 minutes; but subsequent issues added four extra songs, and the reissue I have adds a dozen more for a grand total of 24 tracks.  The sheer length, coupled with the fact that nearly all the songs sound the same, make it one of the most difficult albums I've ever tried to listen to for reviewing purposes - try as I might, I just couldn't get ahold of the thing, and eventually I reached the point where I had to ask myself, why bother?  It's not as if the added tracks are a waste - "I Need Two Heads," and the classic B-side of B-sides, the near-wordless gem of sprightly beauty, "World Weary," are essentialistic, and most of the rest of the bonus material is strongly of a piece with the album tracks proper.  It's simply all too much and the effort expended in digging out the memorable gems buried amongst this pile of mostly average-ordinary tunes - well, is it worth it?  If you're already a fan and own several other Go-Betweens albums, then a tentative, "Yes."  If you're unfamiliar with the band - then a definitive, "No."  This not-bad-at-all album (no-not-really, it's kind of enjoyable late at night) should be the very last place anyone should begin investigating the Go-Betweens - even if it is their debut and all.  

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