Friday, July 8, 2011

The Go-Betweens - Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express

The rain hit the roof with the sound of a finished kiss

Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express (1986) ****

I hate long and clunky album titles.  The Go-Betweens are neither long-winded nor clunky here, though - another 10 song set (what's up with that number again?  Would it have killed them to add a pair from their voluminous outtakes & B-sides vault to make it an even 12 for once?  Or better 14?) that finally gets it just right as Goldilocks said:  a happy, sober medium of pop polish that's not too overproduced and " '80s ".  A substantial improvement over their previous full-length efforts, which is why it receives the exact same grade?  No, this is a case where the original ten-song album deservedly earns its four stars, but the bonus tracks this time round wind up caveat emptor:  mostly alternate versions from edited singles and radio versions, and the unreleased songs, with the exception of the fine "Life at Hand," are decidedly non-essential.  There's a re-recorded version of "Don't Let Him Come Back," that stands in overproduced relation to the original 1979 B-side as the Police's "Don't Stand So Close to Me '86" does to the original 1980 Police single.  "I Work in a Health Spa," and "Reunion Dinner," are novelty spoken-word tracks, the latter only noteworthy as the backing track is electronic cut'n'paste.  The bouncy, horny (in both senses) version of "Casanova's Last Words," doesn't work very well here (would be much improved when they acoustic-ed it up and slowed it down, with a much-improved key lyric change as well - "don't drain the well," doesn't sound half as good as "don't kiss and tell," not to mention more appropriate for the lyrical subject).  There's a live cover of a Tin Pan Alley classic "I'm Gonna Knock On Your Door," that they play as if it's the Ramones - at under 2 minutes, it's out of the way briefly and thus ends the bonus track portion of the two discs.

The album proper has a lighter and yet lusher touch than the previous albums; the music feels the lightest of any Go-Betweens record, by which I mean the feathery production not necessarily the songs (which, come to think of it, are more lightweight than usual - not a bad thing, mind; just means they're not so dour and grim this time out.)  Kicks off with Forster's jangle-fest "Spring Rain," a song that seems intent on defining the word "toe-tapper," - it's sprightly.  In terms of imagery (certainly) and feel (yes) it's somewhat reminiscent of prime....CCR?  Yep, that's the right analogy.  Not soundwise, certainly not - very little bluesy or roots-rocky about the Go-Betweens, but they are extremely folksy, and so they nail down the spirit if not exact sound of John Fogerty do-do-do lookin' out his front door at the rain fallin' down on a sunny day.  McLennan's "Wrong Road," is even Creedencier in tone, a moody crawl based on a nagging angular guitar hook.  Oh, so Forster wrote the upbeat one and McLennan wrote the moody one?  I see that their songwriting styles are converging.  Unlike previous Go-Betweens albums, there are practically no low points; the worst I can say about a relatively weaker track such as "The Ghost and the Black Hat," is that it sort of frothily, if highly pleasantly, passes me by.  There aren't a heck of a lot of high points, either, with nothing quite reaching the masterstroke status of "Cattle and Cane," or "Bachelor Kisses."  This album exemplifies what I said in my intro to the band about how the Go-Betweens are, for both good and ill, the most consistent band in the Antipodes.  There's the downside to this album - it's all in the same style, and with neither great peaks nor valleys, it flows by a wee bit too consistently to hold undisturbed interest.  OK, that quibble aside - rarely has the band sounded more joyous than on the ebullient yet aching, "To Reach Me," which would rank as perfectly surging power-pop with beefier'n'punchier production.  Yes, this album is too thinly produced, but I'm on the fence about that, as it fits the album's featherweight charm - wouldn't sound the same if it were produced well.  "Apology Accepted," ends the album on a shakily insecure emotional grace note, and....sigh, this review is getting as long-winded as the album title itself, so more song-by-song analysis I'll leave by the by.  It's not quite a masterpiece and it doesn't quite blow me away, but it's as lovable and listenable and pleasurable as jingly-jangly collections of pop songs by pushing-30 demi-yuppies from Down Under get.

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