Monday, August 24, 2009

Random Release: Australian Secrets

Sometimes the stars align sufficiently to pair up a couple of young songwriters and allow them to develop a band and, through a series of universally praised albums, a sound that is as unique as it is timeless, each release moving forward in a logical fashion until reaching a type of pop perfection that leaves the group with no other option than to split up in pursuit of solo careers. And unfortunately for the Go-Betweens in 1989, very few people took notice.

For years the Go Betweens were one of those bands I’d always heard of but never heard (one day I need to do a post along those lines). I think my first exposure came in college while scanning CDs at Lucy’s Record Shop and finding the first Jack Frost collaboration between Go B Grant McLennan and enigmatic frontman of the Church, Steve Kilbey. I’d already been a fan of the Church for a number of years and poked a little bit into some of their solo outings, so it only seemed reasonable to pick up this record as well. And while I thoroughly loved it, it somehow wasn’t enough to make me explore the Go Betweens any further. I was some years out of college when I ran across Bellavista Terrace: Best of the Go Betweens at Borders for a decent price. While I’ve never been a big fan of the “best of” compilation, I felt drawn to pick this one up, and thus began my very long and fruitful romance with what is notoriously and shamelessly one of Australia’s best-kept secrets.

Having said I don’t care for “best ofs,” there are a few exceptions and Bellavista Terrace is absolutely one of them; flowing not only as a seamless (out of chronology) run down of the first stage of the Go Betweens’ career, but working quite well as an album in and of itself. Two of the standout tracks from that collection, Cattle & Cane and That Way, were originally released on the band’s second album, 1983’s Before Hollywood, which I picked up next. Over the years this quirky gem has proven to maintain the status (for what it’s worth) of my favorite Go Bs album.

As with all of their pre-break up albums, Before Hollywood saw the band in a transition. They were still a three-piece, as they had been on their proper debut Send Me a Lullaby, but they were shining up the angular edges of that rather difficult album and beginning to discover the pop sensibilities they would come to perfect in future endeavors. A key change was the further emergence of Grant McLennan as a songwriter and vocalist. Having only contributed the latter to a couple of tracks on SMaL, he would now start splitting the vocal duties down the middle with Robert Forster, a trend that would continue throughout the rest of their career. And thus also began one of the brilliant traits of their musical distinctiveness, the juxtaposition of Forster and McLennan’s songwriting, with Robert maintaining the arty, obscure posturing of earlier days and Grant developing a style more straightforward and melodic.

But much of that was yet to come and Before Hollywood maintains a very post punk sound, with a strong set of up/off tempo pre-pop rock accented by Lindy Morrison’s propulsive, often erratic drumming, fleshed out by the brittle bursts of Robert Forster’s guitar and given an additional counter melody through Grant McLennan’s often as not “lead” bass. And yet aside from a certain youthful aggressiveness, this is a very delicate album. These guys aren’t angry per se, at least not violently so, but they are wounded and often wear their hearts on their sleeves. This is never more evident than on Grant’s introspective ode to his childhood-dead father, Dusty in Here, or their best known song (for those in the know), Cattle & Cane. Robert’s contributions also allude to, among other things, a soured heart -- By Chance and the title track -- but his view is less broken and more bitter, with lyrics such as “Make me last through our love, bring on the microphone hidden under stones, record my sobs in baritones…and make me last.” Yikes, right? The first real hint of where they were going is, fittingly enough, found on the last track, the aforementioned That Way, full of Dylan-esque imagery, a certain jangled whimsy and a sing-a-long chorus that heretofore had not been readily found on a Go Betweens release, with the exception of a stray single or two.

With the addition of Robert Vickers on bass for the album’s supporting tour, Grant would move over to second guitar and the Go Betweens would further develop their pop-tastic ambitions, slowly shedding much of the odd time signatures and abrupt chord changes that got them off the ground, and perfecting their own blend of folk-indie-love-rock. Unfortunately they were largely ignored by even the smallest of masses with such an undertaking (again, in spite of widespread critical acclaim), and it wasn’t until three albums into their 21st Century comeback/reunion and 2005’s excellent Oceans Apart that they began to receive the kind of recognition, both commercially and financially, which they should have enjoyed in spades back in their 80s “heyday.”

Sadder still, just a year after Ocean Apart’s release, Grant McLennan died unexpectedly from a heart attack at the age of 48, thus permanently ending what had proven to be an affluent second stage of their career. But his legacy lives on in the Go Betweens’ nine (nearly all) brilliant studio albums (plus four solo outings in the 90s). Before Hollywood finds Grant and Robert just beginning to blossom into the troubadours they would eventually become, and while this album is often far from an acoustic stroll through a moonlit garden, those subtle sensibilities can be readily found at a closer listen.

Grant McLennan: RIP, buddy...

Since my source for samples didn’t have this album (boo), I’ve opted to post this lighthearted and I think tongue in cheek live performance of Cattle & Cane from, I assume, Australian television. My guess is that it was sometime around Tallulah (1987) ‘cos Robert is sporting that blond hair. Nice…

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