Like mud in the September rain it comes back to me
Spring Hill Fair (1984) ****
A weak four stars, and a mild letdown from the previous album; in fact, shear the bonus tracks off this release and it drops down half a point to three-and-a-half. But just as the bonus tracks lifted Send Me a Lullaby from a strong two-and-half to a weak but respectable three star rating, so the extra meat adds flavour to the gristle here as well. The main problem isn't so much the advance in sound from hard-edged jangle to more mainstreamish pop production (which is admittedly a problem, but lurching towards the pop mainstream lays the brickwork for future mainstream pop masterpiece 16 Lovers Lane) as the somewhat more inconsistent songwriting. Let's get to the good stuff first. Never before or since has a Go-Betweens album begun as masterfully as McLennan's "Bachelor Kisses," a gorgeously lush yet understated ringer for a lost late-period Roxy Music ballad, only more humbly humane and tenderly soulful than Bryan Ferry ever seemed quite capable of. But perhaps it's Forster's "Draining the Pool for You," that lodges in the brain most securely, mostly for the lyrics, which amount to a scathing character assassination of new rich air/cokeheads from the point of view of the pool repairman, with the dry, jagged spareness cutting sharply in time. Play these two back to back and you've a perfect double A-side representation of the McLennan/Forster sides of the band. Oh, there are other songs, too, including a remake of "Man O'Sand to Girl O'Sea," that's fractionally more measured/produced/less exciting than the rawer original single (but sometimes fractions are all that matters; I'll never listen to this version again when I have access to the single). But those two are the clear standouts. About half of the songs on the original ten-track album are finely excellent goodness quality expected of the Go-Betweens, particularly the simply lovely, "Part Company." "Five Words," softly stomps its leather shoes in tap-time quite well; apparently it's a co-write, which explains why Grant and Robert are dueting with each other (not that I can figure out which is which). If "You've Never Lived," is rather hectoring, it does give McLennan the chance to show off some blistering, if unexceptionally bar-bandish, guitar soloing (Robert Vickers joined on bass to make it a four-piece, and newly guitarist Grant apparently couldn't resist). The spoken-word track, "River of Money," is a particular low point, however; the story's pretty easy to understand but I'm not very interested in it, perhaps (oh no, definitely because) the music's so boring. Vocal melodies! Where's a vocal melody? My collected vinyl for a vocal melody! Those are things you aren't going to get when you're talking instead of singing. Several other songs are simply too brassy for comfort and wind up uneventful duds as a result; moving towards the mainstream as a more conventional four-piece smoothed out a bit too smoothly the charmingly ragged, awkward post-punk edges present on their first two albums. To make myself more clear: the sound, being more mainstream, simply isn't as interesting as Before Hollywood. It was a nice sound they'd developed as a not-quite-power trio, and now it's forever gone. From hence on out, the Go-Betweens live and die solely by the strength of their songs. Good thing Forster/McLennan are good songwriters, eh? (as mooseheads say in a remote Arctic wasteland 5,000 miles from Oz).
As I said in my first sentence, the bonus tracks bring this up a notch. The first three in the ten-track batch are stronger than the weaker (read: weak) tracks on the album proper, underproduced to almost demo-ish quality, and all the superior for the lack of polish: "Emperor's Courtesan," "Rare Breed," (digging the let's-spell-the-title-out chorus, always a neat and pleasant, if obvious, trick), "Newton Told Me," (lyrics as clever as you'd expect from the title). An instrumental version of "Unkind and Unwise," is quite unnecessary, but otherwise there's little to complain about among these tracks, even if no great lost classics leap out fore and center. "Just Right for Him," is gracefully bitterless; "Second-Hand Furniture," gracefully bitter; "Marco Polo Jr." draggily moody; "Attraction," and "The Power That I Now Have," flipsides of sexual power dynamics; and "Sweet Tasting Hours," bittersweet.