Last year's re-release of the Go-Betweens' back catalog showed that their early records have held up impressively over time. But, like most reunion efforts, Friends lacks the elemental, undefinable spark that made the band's music combust. The sadness that once seemed propulsive on tracks like "Spring Rain" and "Part Company" now is listless and mopey on a gooey ballad like "Orpheus Beach." The band's sound seems toned-down as well, as if it's aiming for the simplicity that the Amerindie guest stars so naturally achieve, which doesn't let the Go-Betweens' songcraft stretch out properly to its natural fullness. "Surfing Magazines" is shrill and cutesy, dominated by a trebly guitar line. It feels like it stumbled off a kindercore release with its tinny sound and youth-fetishism.
Yet Friends is still incredibly listenable because of the rock-solid songwriting of Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, the band's sole original members. The second-best songwriting duo of the '80s (behind Morrissey and Marr), they guided the Go-Betweens through all of their stylistic album-to-album fine-tuning and manage to do so here as well. With rich, poetic lyrics that sculpt emotions from visual images ("Why, when you come here/does the rainbow turn black?" from the wonderful "The Clock"), choruses that are catchy without becoming saccharine and a wise sense of wordplay, the Go-Betweens regularly outshine their slack and rumpled clothing here. The slightly Pavementesque "German Farmhouse" details an extended period of isolation in the titular locale with its attendant anonymity and Luciano Pavarotti rumors (don't ask). It's the sort of specific song-story (like "Draining the Pool for You") that the Go-Betweens have always managed to bring to life. The closest they come to their old glories, though, is on "When She Sang About Angels," a beautiful acoustic ode to hearing Patti Smith's voice. Here McLennan and Forster pay sincere homage to a hero, and the result is a ballad as touching as "Bachelor Kisses." It's also a little ironic: '80s cult heroes reach a peak in the '00s by singing about a '70s punk pioneer with '90s guest stars. Who says we don't live in interesting times?
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