Saturday, January 29, 2011

Tommy Keene - Strange Alliance

Strange Alliance (1982) ***

Tommy Keene's debut mini-LP (only eight songs, with a running time of around 33 minutes) is both fully formed and formative.  He introduces a sharply chiming power-pop formula from which he would rarely deviate from for the rest of his still-ongoing career:  the mix focusing on his reedy, paper-cut sharp tenor vocals, with chimingly harmonized, sometimes even more sharply slicing guitars filling in the musical color in the Byrds/Big Star tradition.  The cuttingly jagged contours of the presentation, and the slight-but-omnipresent melancholy that suffuse Keene's dour outlook, contrasts effectively with his winsomely melodic, straightforward popcraft - his shiny power-pop tunes have an attractively mildly abrasive edge, making him much more emotionally listenable than your run of the mill cheery-bouncy power-popster.  Worshipping the high priest Alex Chilton (Keene claims that the Raspberries are his biggest influence, but Eric Carmen's influence isn't here nor ever in his entire career, remotely audible), a mild early U2 influence also shines through on this release with its overabuse of ringingly harmonized guitar effects.  The jagged little PIL guitar sound is unique to this particular record in Keene's ouvre, and would be quickly dropped in favor of a more Rickenbacker-y jangle on subsequent releases. 

Keene's sound, in other words, is still a bit tentative, and as for the songs, they are as well.  This is a not-bad-at-all record containing seven well-crafted, catchily melodic pop-rock tunes that only really suffers in comparison to his later, superior work.  The closer, "Northern Lights," the sole bummer, is a slow, chilly drag that shows that Keene hadn't quite developed the knack for writing ballads yet.  The energetic "Landscape," bursts from the opening gate with sharp rhythmic drive and along with the anthemic thud of the title track, is easily one of the album's highlights.  The other five tunes aren't quite up to that standard but offer enough reasonably memorable hooks and choruses to stick in your head after a couple of listens; the only major problem being that the band sound less tight and more draggy than they need to be.  This debut may be one of the low points of Keene's career, but Keene is one of those musicians who's so solidly consistent that even his slightly premature debut is still solidly enjoyable and should by no means be avoided by those who dig his modernized Big Star formula.  This album, which has never been reissued on CD (original vinyl versions fetch up to $100 on Ebay, apparantly) is a collector's item if you ever see a vinyl copy in the bins.  But if you don't, here's a link to an MP3 blog where you can download it:

Friday, January 28, 2011

Ian McDonald - Revolution in the Head

This is ideally how all music books should be written: a thoughtful, song-by-song analysis that puts the focus back where it once belonged, on the music.  Covering all 186 Beatles originals as well as their covers, McDonald deftly mixes biography, musical analysis, and social observation via the Beatles' recorded output.  The book begins with a lengthy sociological analysis of the 1960s that is intellectually heady and highly politically opinionated, with references spanning from Derrida to McLuhan.  While it's certainly interesting and worth the time if you're interested in that sort of thing, it can easily be skipped if you want to simply dive into the music.  McDonald's sociological criticisms pop up here and there throughout other passages in the book, but with a few exceptions (it would be disengenous to review "Revolution" #1 and #9 without touching on the political and cultural goings around of the time, wouldn't it?), the emphasis shifts over squarely to purely musical analysis, with biographical snippets of the Beatles' lives at the time to give the songs' meanings context.  McDonald's observations obviously sprout from that of a scholar trained in musical theory, but he doesn't get too bogged down in technical detail, carefully explaining in layman's terms how the chord progressions and performances shape and color the tunes.  Some of the historical data of recording dates and who played what when may be in dispute, but such matters nearly always seem to be, don't they?  Likewise his conjectures on the Beatles' influences on particular tracks (i.e., where did Paul knick the guitar solo for "Taxman", was it Jeff Beck?) may be ultimately educated guesses, but they are educated and they are pretty good guesses given the data known.  The deconstructions of the individual songs in purely musical terms may be rough going for those fans who've never picked up an instrument themselves, but anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of basic chords and harmonics shouldn't find McDonald's prose difficult to follow.  The individual song entries range from a brief paragraph for those songs that McDonalds considers minor ("You Won't See Me," "Don't Pass Me By," etc.), with more substantial songs given a full page review ("Nowhere Man," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," etc.), and with a handful of songs that he considers especially important to the Beatles' musical development, three to five full page reviews ("Tomorrow Never Knows," "Strawberry Fields," "I Want To Hold Your Hand," "I Am The Walrus," "A Day In The Life", etc.).

McDonald was obviously a fan and the book is obviously a labor of love, but a valid criticism of his approach is that he's aware of his fanboyism and thus bends over too far in the other direction to prove that he can be coldly analytical of the Beatles' music.  McDonald makes no pretense of objectivity, with his opinions flatly stated upfront - if he thinks a track is rubbish, he makes no bones of saying so.  Well, it would be a pretty boring book if it didn't offer spirited opinionating as well as dry analysis, wouldn't it?  The problem is that, knee-deep in his analyzing, McDonald hardly finds any Beatles track that he can't turn his microscope on and find some flaw in either composition or performance.  Even songs that he unabashedly loves and states are Beatles masterpieces, such as noting that the middle eight of "Yesterday," is noticably less inspired than the main melody.  His biases are plain.  While he balances his judgements of John and Paul to the point where it's hard to tell which one he prefers, he's overly dismissive of George Harrison, regarding nearly all of his songs as overly flawed, with the exceptions of "Long Long Long," "Taxman," and "Something," (and even then, he backhandedly credits much of the success of "Taxman," to Paul).  He also clearly prefers the 'pop' of their glorious Rubber Soul to Sgt. Pepper's mid-period to the 'rock' of their late-period.  The 'White Album' is my personally favorite Beatles album, yet he dismisses half the record as padded with second-rate compositions.  Which, on reflection, is partially true - many of that double LP's tracks are lightweight throwaways by Beatles standards.  That's another good selling point of the book - McDonald makes the reader reevaluate the Beatles' individual songs, to go back to the records and listen more carefully after reading his analysis.  That's what the best musical criticism should do: reengage your interest and excitement in listening to music that you enjoy, to listen again with more nuanced if not fresher ears.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Jim DeRogatis - Kill Your Idols

Apologies for not updating this blog in a few weeks; between moving and gaining a nasty cold the week after I'd moved in, I haven't been in the mood for my usual daily updates.  Anyway, the weather sunny-ing up and my illness receding, I'm back.  Since I've suffered a stuffy headache at all hours for the past week or so, I haven't been inclined to listen to any music, period, much less the clangy racket of the good ol' post-punk 'n roll I've set up on my reviewing schedule.  Instead I've gotten a lot of reading done, as much as I can between cough-syrup induced bouts of stupor.  Which brings us to this stupid book.  The idea is simple: 22 writers write 22 essays, each trashing a particular rock 'classic' that they feel is either overrated or outright sucks.  It's the sort of thing a snotty 24 year old might dash off in twenty minutes on his personal record reviewing site ( ), but hey, I was just starting out when I wrote that (sheepishly whistles, ducks head).  Here are the records smashed:

The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
The Beach Boys, Smile
The Who, Tommy
The MC5, Kick Out the Jams
The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Captain Beefheart and & His Magic Band, Trout Mask Replica
Derek and the Dominos, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs
Led Zeppelin, untitled (“IV”)
Neil Young, Harvest
The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street
The Eagles, Desperado
Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd
Gram Parsons, GP / Grievous Angel
The Doors, The Best of the Doors
Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon
Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks
Patti Smith, Horses
Bob Marley & the Wailers, Exodus
Fleetwood Mac, Rumours
Paul & Linda McCartney, Ram
John Lennon / Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy
The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks . . . Here’s the Sex Pistols
Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables
Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run
Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Imperial Bedroom
Various artists, My Greatest Exes
U2, The Joshua Tree
Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Nirvana, Nevermind
The Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
Radiohead, OK Computer
Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Nevermind that the list is, with a few exceptions (Dylan, Costello, Fleetwood Mac - in my opinion; yours may differ) mostly correct, the problem is the smug, anti-boomer Gen X attitude that infects most of these pieces.  DeRogatis has an admittedly understandable grudge against Jan Wenner's Rolling Stone and its narcissistic boomer-centric idea of the rock canon centered around the Holy Year of Our Lord 1967 and the primacy of late '60s/early '70s mainstream rock.  DeRogatis goes overboard with his ridicule, though, with his unexamined late '70s/early '80s punk-rock derived aesthetic assumptions making him as much as a parody as Jan Wenner is of narcisstic boomers.  Sgt. Pepper's and Pet Sounds have by now been targeted as much by the anti-hype as exalted by the hype in the annals of rock criticism, and as such are entirely predictable targets for such an anthology, almost to the point where someone should write an essay extolling Sgt. Pepper's as a pop masterpiece just for counterbalance.  Or not.  It's really just a second-rate collection of Beatles tunes, easily inferior to Revolver or Rubber Soul or Help! - which is the common consensus these days, isn't it?  The essay would have been timelier in 1987, when the 20th anniversary CD reissue was causing so much fanfare to vault it into the Greatest Album of All Time status (a status that it has subsequently delustered over the years).

Glancing over the list, several of the choices seem like too easy of targets.  In what universe are Desperado and Prounounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd considered "classics"?  Or anything besides music for aging drunk rednecks?  Yes, Jim Morrison was a buffoon, and the Doors more of a Holiday Inn lounge act than a convincing rock band - so?  Do you really know anybody over 15 who considers Jimbo a "poet"?  And, uh....Exodus?  Really?  I never even heard of that album before I read this book, and I've never, ever seen it on any canonical lists of classics.  Most normal people regard Marley's two albums with the Wailers to be his peak and his solo career as worthwhile but a step down.  I mean, normal fans, not the fratboys who use the gatefold of Legend to roll joints on.  Double Fantasy?  Why not Imagine or Plastic Ono Band - those are considered Lennon's pair of 'classics', not his late-period commercialized comeback.  And really, I was not aware that anyone outside of George Starostin considered Ram to be a 'classic' or even a very good album.  The general critical and popular consensus is that Paul was great in the Beatles but inexplicably turned to shit in his solo years, so we're hardly goading any sacred cows here.  Why not be really edgy and claim that Paul was shit in the Beatles, too?  Now that might be an interesting essay.  Completely wrongheaded, but at least more interesting than picking such an easy target as "Smile Away".

I'm not going to bother running down my opinions of all 22 essays, given my time, space, and spleen constraints.  A few of the articles are well-written and explain fairly well why the music doesn't work as it should.  Too many of these essays are examples of the worst type of rock criticism, focusing 90% on the lyrics or subjective cultural associations ("My Greatest Exes," is just an autobiographical sketch riffing off songs on mix-tapes her boyfriends made for her - why is this included?  Oh right, that's because Carmél Carrillo is one of the co-editors).  Yeah, so Bono repeats certain key words and phrases over and over.  That's....sort of.....what pop songs do.  Talk about cluelessly missing the point.  And Springsteen is bombastic?  Hold the presses!  A lot (not all) anti-Springsteen critics just don't get it - the operatic melodrama is part of what makes him great. 

But let me mention the decent essays before I forget, the ones that are incisive and not just bitchy.  The articles on Exile on Main Street, Layla, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Trout Mask Replica, Harvest, and Blood on the Tracks make fairly convincing cases for the prosecution, and not so coincidentally are the most solidly researched and argued from a strictly musical perspective.  A few more like those and this might have actually been a book worth reading.  (I'm still scratching my head at who, besides millions of record buyers, considers Harvest a classic - most Neil fans consider it a messily inconsistent sell-out that sets the stage for his anti-commercial Time Fades Away/On the Beach/Tonight's the Night trilogy.)

As for the worst of the worst, it's hard to choose between the article about Rumours, which at no point ever even discusses any of the music.  Instead, it's just a tedious, juvenile assassination fantasy in which the writer guns down Fleetwood Mac at a concert.  That'  Literally, the essay is.....that's it.  But even worse is the essay about Led Zeppelin IV, which take ten pages.  The first half is a gross little tale of Adrian Brijbassi getting a hard-on during a highschool dance, and because the song is "Stairway to Heaven," the erotic friction of the slow dance goes on for an excruciating seven minutes that he can't help but cum in his pants while rubbing up against his partner.  That not at all embarrassing little story that Adrian must have felt the burning need to share out of the way, the final 3 or 4 pages where he tries to talk about the music amount to little more than the now-standardized cliche that, "Led Zep were, like, plagiarists, man."  No analysis, no nothing, just a perfunctory list of blues and rock sources that Zep ripped off, thrown out there on the page with little adornment or convincing argument.

In its defense, this book is a quick read, and let's admit it, negative reviews can be so much fun.  It's often easier to rip something apart than it is to find non-soppy ways to praise something.  As this blog post shows.  Well, I have been in an awful mood these past couple of weeks, so a little bile-blasting is in order.  Maybe I'll feel better next week and get on with the record reviews - reviews of music that I enjoy. 

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Killing Joke - Killing Joke

Killing Joke (1980) ***1/2

Killing Joke's debut dishes out some by then standard post-punk elements for a psycho-technological horror show that intersects the junctures of punk, metal, industrial, and goth.  Bassist "Youth" (not his real name) clearly attended the Jean-Jacques Burnel/Peter Hook academy of Stranglers/Joy Division doomy bass lines invading the subconscious.  Guitarist "Geordie" (not his real name) worships at the altar of Tony Iommi, grinding away thick, heavy, keep-it-simple-stupid riffage.  Paul Ferguson tribalistically pounds the skins as if he just get fired from Adam & the Ants or Bow Wow Wow.  Singer Jaz Coleman sounds like....well, a hoarse, pissed-off yob, nothing unique there; he also lays down some texturish synth lines for gloomy technicolor.  Killing Joke's sound is based on extreme repetition, like Sabbath or Kraftwerk (you want a description of this LP in two nutshell influences, there you go), centering around a relentless rhythmic drive, churning robotic metal riffs, shouted yobbo vocals, and a dour, gloom-goth post-punk atmosphere (think The Scream era Siouxsie, and we're through influence-dropping).  It's a pretty great formula, but the album stumbles a bit because it is, indeed, a formula - not much variety here, some slow ones ("Requiem"), some "Symptom of the Universe"-level faster ones ("The Wait"), but the guitar tones and overall band dynamics stay the same.  Which wouldn't be that much of a problem if the songwriting was more consistent: there are only nine songs, and at least a third of'em don't do much for me - the thudding funk of "Change," is way too repetitive with no forward motion;  "$0.36" is a spoken word piece (in German, which I guess is supposed to be Nazi-creepy); "Tomorrow's World" is just a slow drag.  Such inconsistency is par for the course of any Killing Joke album, and they're not exactly a singles outfit tailored for a greatest hits comp, so this is nevertheless probably the best beginning point if you're interested in these harbingers of late-industrial civilizational collapse.  See the cover?  It sums up the cold, grey overtones of this album fairly well:  the crushing inhuman power of technology, danceable bass boogie underneath layers of icy metallized guitar seemingly played by a soul-free robot, with cold wave synthesizers lurking in the shadows.  The songs (when they're good) are certainly anthemic, and even (dare I say it) a tad poppy, too.  Quite influential on later metal and post-punk and industrial bands (the ones that use guitars, at least); too bad the band never made another album quite like this one.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The New Pornographers - Mass Romantic

Mass Romantic (2000) ****

An alleged "supergroup" led by principals Colin Newman (of Zumpano, whom I've heard precisely one song on a power pop compilation from), Dan Bejar (of Destroyer, whom I've never heard), Neko Case (whose records I've never heard, but I've seen several racy photos of her on the internet), and some other people from shitty little indie-rock bands no one outside of Moosejaw, Saskatchewan has ever heard (I'm assuming here), the New Pornographers do not peddle the cheesy soft-disco bubble-funk instrumentals set to the sound of a lonely housewife and appliance repair man moaning, as you'd naturally expect from their name.  No, this is bubblegummy indie-rock, an infectious, '70s glammy stomp that recalls the best of Sweet and Wizzard, very very featherlite and very very very catchy as genital herpes, but with sleek modernized guitar tones.  The Achilles' heel is beyond obvious after one exhausting listen (even at 41 minutes, this seems to go on forever):  their ABBA-meets-the-Ramones power pop formula gets real wearying real fast because, same as same as same as the Ramones, everything all sounds the same.  The tunes are all relentlessly upbeat and saccharine, with zero emotional heft, and the guitar tone never, ever changes.  Some of the songs are better than others ("Letter From an Occupant) and some worse ("Breakin' the Law"), and in small doses of three or four of these twisty-turny songs, it's a sugar rush, but you know how quickly sugar highs leave you queasily hungover.  Whichever New Pornographers album you prefer thus entirely depends on which one you heard first.  Nearly every other critic in the world prefers this debut to all the other albums since this was the Porno's first, but I personally prefer their second album because that was my first exposure to the wonderful world of Canadian pornography.

A song-by-song review therefore is as unnecessary as a year-by-year Playmate review, but let's get it on, babe.  The title track celebrates the mass wedding of thousands of couples in South Korea in a giant ceremony by Sun Myung Yung's Unification Church.  "The Fake Headlines" excoriates Fox News, Al Jazeera, Pravda, the National Enquirer, and the North Korean national news service.  "The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism," is a spoken-word piece cobbled together from the poetry of Charles Bukowski.  "Mystery Hours" concerns the legendary missing minutes of time that got misplaced when the Catholic Church switched over from the Julian to Gregorian calendar.  "Jackie" on first glance is a cutesy-retro mash-note to Jackie Onassis, until you listen to the lyrics and realize that Dan Bejar is singing about raiding the Kennedy masoleum, disinterring her corpse, and having his wicked way with her cold, dead bones.  "Letter From an Occupant," is a social protest number in solidarity with postal workers' unions.  "To Wild Homes," is an autobiographical tale of Newman's raising as an abandoned orphan by wild meese in the northern Yukon province.  "The Body Says No," is a bitter lament about a thwarted date rape, sung sympathetically from the point of view of the attempted date rapist.  "Dad wouldn't you believe, she didn't need me!"  "Execution Day," is yet another rock song about Gary Gilmore.  "Centre for Holy Wars," (sic; get these ignorant Canucks a spellchecker) is a prescient warning released an entire year before 9/11, which not only eerily predicts the Twin Towers' demise but calls Mohammed Atta and Bin Laden out by name.  "The Mary Martin Show," tells the true story of a Montreal children's show host convicted of pedophilia and assassinated by Quebecois separatist extremists.  And finally, "Breakin' the Law," is indeed a cover of the Judas Priest classic, complete with cameo vocals from Rob Halford himself, who thoughtfully includes a rap break in the middle to keep with the times, hangin' tough like it's 1989.

But don't turn the album off just yet.  If you let the CD continue to play, over half an hour later comes the secret hidden bonus track, which in keeping with the beastiality and Canadian pride themes of the disc, consists of the moanings and gruntings of a beaver being screwed by a moose.  And by beaver, I do not refer to the slang term for a female vagina, but the North American mammal species, that apparently looks like this: 

That's one of the photos that showed up on the first page of my Google image search for beaver, and yes, I had the moderate filter settings on.

The Church - The Blurred Crusade

The Blurred Crusade (1982) ***

If you're looking for The Generic Church Album, seek ye no further.  Adding a Byrdsey jangle to the jittery power-paisley formula introduced on their debut, for better or worse all the trademark elements of the Church sound were firmly in place by their sophomore slump:  Steve Kilbey's dry, laconic vocals meshing with the colorfully chiming, snakey twin-lead guitar interplay of Willson-Piper and Koppes.  "When You Were Mine," is the pick of the litter here, a fine tension-building, anthemic single to cherrypick for the inevitable best-of comp.  Marty Willson-Piper slides in one of his compositions, "Field of Mars," and "You Took," stretches on for an epic seven minutes without doing much more than sound like a really long Church song, and pretty soon I find myself running out of interesting things to say about this record.  It's a fine, extremely typical Church album that will please the fans and bore the dulldroms out of the unconverted.  The hooks are too dulled this time out for many of the songs to stand out as individually memorable, but the brite, Byrsdey sound and atmosphere make for a pleasant overall album listen.  Rather samey in sound, but it's an inoffensive saminess.  Or boring, depending on where your ears stand.  You shell out your shekels and takes your chances.

Great cover, though.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Go-Betweens - 78 'til 79: the Lost Album

She comes from Ireland, she's very beautiful
I come from Brisbane, and I'm quite plain

78 'til 79: the Lost Album (1999) ***

The Go-Betweens' first single was released in May 1978 ("Lee Remick" b/w "Karen") and second single in May 1979 ("People Say" b/w "Don't Let Him Come Back"), and they bookend this 33-minute, 13-song collection.   Sandwiched between are rough two-track bedroom demos, Grant McLennan providing the two-track machine and Robert Forster the bedroom - as well as the songs.  At this point, Forster was the sole songwriter as well as guitarist and lead singer; McLennan's creativity was limited to a couple of co-writes and the bass guitar, of which his playing seemed determined to break out and assert his creative input (which is to say his bass parts are quite strong and good).  Amazingly, the Go-Betweens seemed to have emerged fully formed even at this earliest of points (they'd only just formed in December of '77), as their talent and intuitive mastery of the basics of the formal songwriting craft shine through even on the poorly-recorded bedroom tapes.  The sound quality is dodgy and at points hiss crackles and the sound recording drops out, but when you're dealing with confessional singer-songwritering, audio fidelity is if not really beside the point at least not really all that important:  a couple of flatmates singing in harmony, a couple of guitars, someone to press play - what more do you need?  As for the song quality of the demos, they more than show promise, they're good songs in their own right, if not quite fully developed into the classically mature Go-Betweens mold.  Forster is writing more simply at this early stage, with the hooks, choruses, and melodies rather basic compared to his later work.

Simple and basic equal effective on both sides of their debut single, though.  "Lee Remick" is a delightfully bouncy ode to the film star, with Forster shyly admitting and giving in to his teenage crush fantasies in an ultra-poppy, ultra-boppy tune that with a little polish and transport back to 1966 could've been a hit for the Hollies or Turtles.  Rough edges are part of the charm, anyways, and "Karen" is even more striking, if much less commercial.  Channeling a blatant Jonathan Richman influence, Forster nervously declares his near-psychotic obsession with the said-named librarian, until he reaches a feverous pitch near the end when he starts ranting about how all the other girls have Eskimo blood in their veins.  Balancing on three of the most basic of chords (it's in E) pounded and strummed with extreme repetition, the music provides a hypnotically obsessive bedrock that complements the obsessiveness in Forster's sung-spoken declamations, namedropping literary heavyweights whose books she helps him search for, while repeating her name for the chorus in a trancelike mantra.  Perhaps they did peak early, and never really improved on their first single.  It shows off their poppy and literary, Paul and John, nice and edgy, sides in one neat package.

By track #11 it's time for "The Sound of Rain," another lost demo recording, but much more polished than the bedroom tapes.  It's a pretty tune that tells a short vignette about betrayal and murder, and would have made an excellent addition to one of their albums; one could argue for more polish, but the lo-fi quality fits the tune fine, and I can't see its lo-fi charms being much improved in the studio, tis perfect as is.  The mono-level quality works just as well for "People Say," which with its Farfisa cheese and Stonesy swagger brilliantly recreates a simalcrum of circa '66 garage rock.  The flip side, "Don't Let Him Back," with its spaghetti-western guitar and lyrical vibe, is slightly more advanced musically and production-wise than any of the preceding tracks, and no lesser or greater for all that.  This album proves that even with the most basic of materials and rudimentary musical skills, the Go-Betweens could deliver a fine quality album.  Definitely the last place to start with these new bohemians, since it is after all basically a collection of underpolished demos, but also most definitely not a waste of time.  A historical artifact of more than mere archeological value.

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.