A funny thing happened to Robert Forster and Grant McLennan en route to a gig: They rediscovered their old band the Go-Betweens. And while most reunions tend to tilt more toward exhumation than reclamation, in this instance it would appear neither songwriter had been carrying around that dreaded "unfinished business" monkey on his back. For once, a comeback was born out of a mutual love of one another's music (not to mention a long-standing friendship that was never sullied by the initial split, which came in '89, a decade after the Go-Be's had started up in Brisbane, Australia), as opposed to some long-fermenting sour grapes or the urging of an accountant to cash in on the long memories of old-time fans.
Be forewarned: Go-Betweens records (six during the first run, plus a pair of anthologies -- one chronicling early singles, the other a best-of -- from last year) are the model of subtlety in pop songcraft. For a proper introduction that'll help you sift through the mystique that posthumous word-of-mouth from the likes of R.E.M., Belle & Sebastian and Pavement has generated, turn to the aforementioned greatest hits collection, Bellavista Terrace, or perhaps the group's two genuine masterpieces, 1982's Before Hollywood and 1986's Liberty Belle & the Black Diamond Express. Then, when you've got an hour or two of private time, prepare to be (subtly) amazed.
Forster and McLennan have voices that are simultaneously complementary and mirror images. (Generally noted: Forster has the more mid-rangey drawl, while McLennan is smoother, breathier and ever-so-slightly higher-pitched.) For the most part, despite each singer's native richness of timbre, lush "Beatlesque" harmonies are not the norm; more typically, one singer takes the (assertive) lead while the other paints gentle colorations around the edges. In any case, the listening experience itself rarely is interrupted by such musings; every song is a self-contained, fully integrated composition unique from its neighbors.
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For example, "The Clock" surges forward on a Velvet Underground/Feelies-style chug. Touches of dissonant guitar and keyboards add tension, with the tune ultimately building to a climax of jangly chords and soaring harmonies. By contrast, the chamber quartet motif in "He Lives My Life" gives the ballad a serene, baroque-folk feel framing Forster's quietly rumpled troubadour vocal. And the album's unqualified masterpiece, a breakup song titled "Orpheus Beach," features an insistent heartbeat-cum-surf bass pulse, droning, nocturnal keyboards and spectral swipes of lead guitar, all of which perfectly heighten McLennan's growing resolve to ease his desperation: "I feel you breathing in my head/But better there, if not in bed/I wash your perfume from my clothes/I won't believe that affection goes/But I don't want this heart/I don't need this blood/Time to be leaving/Run from your reach . . ."
By aiming for low-key, the players take the high road, with the ultimate aim, clearly, being to serve the songs themselves, not the songwriters' egos. And those songs most assuredly lodge deep within your ear canals, winnowing farther inward with each successive listen as they journey toward your heart.
In the interim between this album and 1988's 16 Lover's Lane, Forster and McLennan did forge moderately acclaimed, cult-fave solo careers, with four albums apiece to their names (McLennan also found time to record a pair of wonderful, low-key collaborations with the Church's Steve Kilbey as Jack Frost). Occasionally joining forces to do joint gigs, the pair gradually warmed to the idea of doing an album together. They convened earlier this year in Portland to record, producing themselves while getting able assistance and cheerleading from such fans as Sleater-Kinney's Janet Weiss (drums), Quasi's Sam Coombes (keyboards) and Elliott Smith (more keys). Veteran indie tape operator Larry Crane handled engineering chores, and another Go-Betweens fan, Pavement's Stephen Malkmus, even loaned part of the studio gear for the project. Forster and McLennan caught lightning in a bottle and reclaimed the old Go-Be's vibe -- and perhaps the album's lead cut best sums things up: "I don't want to change a thing/When there's magic," croons McLennan beatifically in "Magic in Here."
No one's making any predictions on the group's tenure this time around. But whether it lasts another decade or less than a year, The Friends of Rachel Worth was, pardon the all-too-obvious pun, worth the wait.