Monday, November 21, 2011

The Go-Betweens - Oceans Apart

What would you do if you turned around and saw me
Not in a dream, but in a song?

Oceans Apart (2005) ****

After all these years, I've finally gotten the knack of discerning between Forster and McLennan.  Or rather to say, in their middle-age their styles have diverged substantially enough that even on first listen it's easy to spot who's who.  Would McLennan have opened an album with a jittery, paranoid and brittle rocker, "Here Comes the City," that awkwardly (but endearingly) drops a gratuitous reference to Dostoyevsky?  Well into his 40s, is Robert still trying to impress tantalizing librarians?  And the second track, "Finding You," with its clear-eyed soft-folk melodic strum and thrum, could only have flowed from the pen of Grant in his mellifluous middle age:  its instantly memorable lilt and tenderly poetic lyricism mark it as a clear highlight.  However, as on the previous album, Forster manages to come up with the smarter batch of tunes, mostly because they are smarter and tougher.  McLennan, traditionally the more pop-tuneful of the duo (Sir Paul to Bob's John), has grown more lush and atmospheric in his approach, and while I have no doubt that an entire album of lushly atmospheric soft-rock numbers would prove soporific, the flow of the 10 songs on this album (you expected a different number of tracks?) nicely balances the generally more pointed Forster numbers with the gentler McLennan tunes.  Not that Grant's anything approaching a slouch:  aside from penning the album's aforementioned highlight, he also snags in a few more with "No Reason to Cry," (which boasts an exquisite guitar solo), the lovely melodic wash of "Statue," the blink-and-it's-over-too-soon "Boundary Rider," and "This Night's For You," which adds some pleasingly coo-ing doo-wop "ba ba ba's" to the backing chorus, and all of which give Adult Alternative folk-pop a grand name.  Hmm, perhaps on second reflection, Grant's the clear winner this time out, with a stronger set of tunes despite the soft, blurry edges.  And with the exception of "Lavender," a straightforward ballad that gratingly lacks any discernable hook, none of Forster's tunes misfire, either.  Some might irk at "Darlinghurst Nights," dragging a little too long at 6 1/2 minutes, but hey - does the word Dylanesque mean anything to you?  The semi-autobiographical "Born to Family," in which Robert recounts of how he broke with the family tradition of hard, honest toil to follow the path he had to follow as a working musician, is another clear highlight.  And finally, rural elegy of "The Mountains Near Dellray," could be Forster's attempted rewrite of McLennan's classic from way back when "Cattle and Cane,"  - fittingly capping off the Go-Between's career, full circle with one of the strongest albums of their career, not to mention their most commercially successful:  after all this time, they were finally gaining the success and recognition they deserved, which makes Grant McLennan's death the year after this release all the more tragic.  From this evidence, the Go-Betweens could've kept cranking out quality albums at a steady pace until they were physically too infirm to pick up guitars.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Public Image Limited - The Flowers of Romance

The Flowers of Romance (1981) **1/2

Someone once quipped that John Lydon was the master of the influential but unlistenable, and this is one of those discs that is recommended listening for any adventurous music fan if only to try the limits of what you can define as 'listenable' (at least in a pop/rock context).  First, let's underline the difference between Metal Box and this followup, third PIL studio album:  no Jah Wobble.  Charming gent that Mr. Lydon is, he sheds members like a snake its skin, and this time out, he decided not to bother advertising for a replacement bassist.  Which means that the, ahem, 'tunes' revolve around Lydon's wailing over Martin Atkin's spare, tribalistic drums (well, how else can the music be described as anything but tribalistic when it consists of mostly drumming and vocal wailing and little else?).  Keith Levene is still present, but as a much more muted presence:  his contributions consist mostly of keyboard splashes (used as dry and minimalistically as anything else on the record), with his guitar only brought out occasionally as one more minor element of texture.  What it, in effect, amounts to is Metal Box II with all the bass parts deleted from the mix and subsequently much less interesting and much, much less danceable.  Oh, not that it's not interesting - the music carries the punk minimalist aesthetic to at least one of its logical conclusions:   drum'n'voice'n'cheap Casio.  The opening track sounds vaguely Arabic in its snakey call-to-prayer vocal wailing, but whether that was intentional or not - scratch me.  Maybe these potheads were adding some vinyl from Morocco to their steady diet of dub reggae.  The album also contains many stretches of instrumental meandering; perhaps that's why "Banging the Door," leaps out as the most memorable track, as it actually possesses a coherent and memorable vocal melody (chant, actually; I'd be hard to describe much of this music as 'melodic' in the traditional sense).  Have a I stressed enough how difficult this music is to get into?  If you want to clear a crowded room, this is one of those Top Ten 'Party Clearer' records, at least as far as nominally 'rock' albums are concerned.  This is Adam and the Ants' "noble savage drum drum drum" as conceived by John Cage, with all the fun sucked out of it.  Too monochromatically grim to take pleasure in the potentially colorful weirdness of the anti-pop concept.  As with Metal Box, PIL conjure a dour yet compelling atmosphere and proceed to coast on sheer sound for the entire album without writing any but the barest of 'songs'.  But as with most sequels, the quality is considerably inferior.  "No fun!"  But interesting.