By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
For Australia's Go-Betweens, the second time around is proving to be the charm -- both in wooing American listeners and in satisfying the respective muses of founding members Robert Forster and Grant McLennan. The band's two records since their reunion -- 2000's The Friends of Rachel Worth and the new album, Bright Yellow, Bright Orange -- tap into the Go-Betweens' long legacy of literate and lyrical songcraft, yet they hum with the vigor that accompanies a fresh start.
Not that the band didn't possess considerable charm the first time around. Forster and McLennan formed the Go-Betweens in 1978, but it wasn't until 1985 that they landed on American shores. The band's first three albums -- 1981's Send Me a Lullaby, 1983's Before Hollywood and 1984's Spring Hill Fair -- were not released in the United States until more than a decade after they appeared elsewhere, and a 1985 distillation of Before Hollywood and Spring Hill Fair dubbed Metal and Shells was the band's first U.S. release.
What U.S. listeners missed in the first few records was the Go-Betweens' growing pains. The band's early records borrowed liberally from Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the wired Bowery rock of Television and early Talking Heads but filtered those anxious influences through wry wit and reflective melancholy. By the time the Go-Betweens recorded Spring Hill Fair,however, Forster and McLennan were making lush and melodic music that owed little to anyone else -- and could spook or sparkle according to the band's mood.
By the time U.S. audiences finally got a full-length taste of the Go-Betweens' music -- 1986's Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express and 1987's Tallulah -- the group had blossomed into one of rock's most tuneful and erudite bands. Critical hosannas never translated into sales, however, and even the release of the band's most consistent and commercial record (1989's 16 Lovers Lane) couldn't prevent a bittersweet breakup in 1990.
Hindsight being 20/20, the band members now see the pursuit of that elusive hit single with a more jaundiced eye. Interviewed by e-mail, Forster sums up that period with one word: "madness." He adds that the band's pop-star era was a time of "trying to reconcile craft and commerce, (and) failing as you can with that. It was a blur -- some very good music, some so-so. We never stood a chance in the USA. It was fun, though. And had to stop."
Robert Vickers, who played bass with the Go-Betweens from Spring Hill Fair through Tallulah, argues that "at the time, we were definitely trying to make pop records that would appeal to a lot of people. We even agreed to use that scourge of the time, the click track, on Spring Hill Fair."
The Go-Betweens' quest for a hit single became an obsession of sorts. "We were also very aware of needing a single to sell an album," Vickers continues. "We were all fans of singles growing up in the early '70s, so it was very natural to us that you had to have a radio-friendly single on an album. We did not approach the rest of the album as filler, [but] we felt it was possible to make an album that had a quality radio single on it without sacrificing the rest of the record."
That quest extended even to approaching the songs deemed to be "singles" differently, says Vickers. "On Spring Hill Fair," he recalls, "we recorded the 'Bachelor Kisses' single separately from the album. On Tallulah, we recorded 'Right Here' and 'Cut it Out' -- perhaps less successfully -- in a different studio with a different producer."
McLennan and Forster spent a decade making records apart, but the Go-Betweens' posthumous stock kept rising. Over that ten-year span, American fans of the band drowned in a flood of long-overdue re-releases and compilations -- including not one but two greatest-hits packages, 1990's The Go-Betweens 1978-1990 and 1999's Bellavista Terrace. There were also remasterings and repackagings of the band's five studio albums in 1996 and in 2002, the latter series kicked off by the release of "lost" 1978 and 1979 recordings of the band.
Thus latecomers were warmly welcomed and longtime fans at last could discern an arc to the band's career -- a smoothing out of rough edges and acceleration of the band's emotional intensity and maturity. The dialectics between Forster's intellect-driven folk and rock and McLennan's shimmering pop also sharpened in hindsight.
Eventually, Forster and McLennan took note of the revival of the band's fortunes and decided that resistance was futile. But unlike the dozens of old-school bands that re-form to cash in, the duo began working together again with a fresh take on both their music and each other. "The main benefit of the hiatus was that we learned to live again," McLennan says in response to e-mailed questions. The summing-up of the band's previous history in the series of re-releases, McLennan adds, "presents you with the gift of a blank drawing book."
Filling that blank drawing book are two collections of songs that stand happily with the best of their previous work. Recorded in Portland with members of Sleater-Kinney on board, Rachel Worth had a lo-fi quality that harked back to the band's first two records without relinquishing the band's hard-won maturity. McLennan's melody once again found muscle ("The Clock") and Forster's new songs ("German Farmhouse," "He Lives My Life") crackled and glowed by turns.