The Go-Betweens: G Stands for Go-Betweens: Volume 1, 1978-1984

The Go-Betweens were their own favorite band, and there’s a lot to be said for that. Robert Forster and Grant McLennan met as teenaged boys at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, as Forster explains in the book that’s the centerpiece of this anthology of their first seven years together. (His 70-page history of that period is written in the third person; count on the Go-Betweens for a touch of the impersonal where it’s least expected.) They had their own ideas of what pop might be, and especially of what Australian pop might be. The very end of the book names their influences: Abba, Bowie, Creedence, Dolenz, Easybeats, Fellini, and then themselves.

The two of them bonded over their enthusiasm for film and literature at least as much as they did over music. Young men of that era didn’t become filmmakers or novelists together, because that couldn’t yield Jules et Jim, so Forster taught McLennan how to play guitar, and they started the group. (Forster described their partnership as “platonic homosexuality.”) Between 1978 and 1989, they made a small mountain of records but never made much of a ripple commercially; their 2000-2006 reunion was cut short by McLennan’s death. Forster’s essay, though, disputes the received wisdom that they “were ‘unsuccessful’ and had little luck. It is a view Forster and McLennan never shared, having taken a two-piece Brisbane bedroom band out to the world.”

The Go-Betweens have tried to organize and reassess their chaotic early period a few times now: There have been a few greatest-hits sets, 1985’s semi-bootlegged Very Quick on the Eye, 1999’s ’78 Til ’79: The Lost Album, the expanded 2002 reissues of their early albums. G Stands for Go-Betweens includes new vinyl remasters of Send Me a Lullaby (1982), Before Hollywood (1983) and Spring Hill Fair (1984), and an LP called The First Five Singles, which is just that. There are also four CDs: three discs’ worth of demos, compilation tracks, B-sides and oddities, and a live set from April, 1982, which features a few songs that mutated or disappeared before they could be recorded. This is, in other words, aimed at Go-Betweens superfans, but most of their fans were always superfans anyway.

They were a singles band more than they tended to let on—a lot of their songs are best experienced one or two at a time. The First Five Singles, released one a year from 1978 to 1982, is the most immediately delightful of these eight discs, although the very early Go-Betweens were callow, awkward, and a little uncomfortable with women, in the way that bookish young men can be. Both sides of their first single are paeans to unattainable women, one of them Lee Remick and the other a librarian who “helps me find Genet, helps me find Brecht, helps me find Chandler… she’s my god, she’s my G-O-D.” “People Say”, from 1979, is a homemade homage to the garage singles of a dozen years earlier; the next year’s skittish “I Need Two Heads” made them the only non-Scottish band to release music on Postcard Records, thanks to a trip to the UK whose charming details Forster explains in the book.

Forster has noted that people shouldn’t buy the Go-Betweens’ first album “without at least owning three others,” and he’s probably right. (The 1999 Go-Betweens retrospective Bellavista Terrace didn’t include anything from it.) Send Me a Lullaby—the LP included here is the 12-song British version that came out in early 1982, rather than the eight-song 1981 Australian version—is the kind of arch, dry post-punk that sat itchily next to, say, Essential Logic or James Chance records (the occasional blurts of James Freud’s saxophone are a reminder that that was the flavor of the underground at that particular moment).

Forster and McLennan weren’t yet comfortable with their voices; “Midnight to Neon” sounds like Forster wasn’t even sure how its melody was supposed to go. Lullaby‘s main contribution to the band’s history is introducing drummer/occasional vocalist Lindy Morrison, who was also dating Forster at the time, and who would be the backbone of the band until the end of its first incarnation in 1989. Morrison was never a showy musician, but she gracefully navigated the eccentric rhythms and time signatures that were starting to appear in both songwriters’ work.

Before Hollywood from 1983 was the first time the Go-Betweens really sounded like they would for the rest of their initial run: a little bit off to the side of the pop mainstream’s commercial-alternative tributary, looking skeptically at it as it rushed alongside them. The distinction between Forster’s writing (acidic, bristling) and McLennan’s (tender, playful) was starting to become clearer; McLennan’s first real jewel of a song, “Cattle and Cane”, is a self-consciously poetic reminiscence of his youth, set to a gorgeous mesh of acoustic and electric guitar tones in 11/8 time; Forster’s songs are the album’s tougher rockers, especially “By Chance”, which sounds more than a bit like the early Smiths (both bands were releasing records on Rough Trade at the time).

By the time they made 1984’s Spring Hill Fair, on which McLennan switched to guitar and Robert Vickers, who’d met them at their first show, took over on bass, the Go-Betweens had apparently made peace with prettiness. Its single “Bachelor Kisses” was McLennan’s sweetest-sounding song yet—although, naturally, its lyrics bit harder than his delivery suggested. The band’s reach still exceeded its grasp sometimes, and their stabs at funk and spoken-word vers libre are stumbles (although not disasters); a remake of the “Man O’ Sand to Girl O’ Sea” single doesn’t match the frantic nervousness of the original. But you can also hear them successfully assimilating what they’d picked up through their engagement with other people’s music. “The Old Way Out” is effectively the Fall translated into the Go-Betweens’ own idiom, and Forster’s “Part Company” is Bob Dylan‘s Blood on the Tracks refracted through Australian rehearsal room windows.

Dylan’s idea of a “thin wild mercury sound” was an obvious ancestor of what McLennan and Forster had called “that striped sunlight sound,” a phrase from the sleeve of their first single that reappeared as the title of their 2005 live album. You don’t come up with something like that unless you’re very interested in figuring out how to mythologize yourself. But why shouldn’t they have? The Go-Betweens’ endless enthusiasm for their own work is what propelled them out of that Brisbane bedroom in the first place, and the richness of context that this box provides makes it a deeper pleasure than its component albums are on their own.

The first 600 copies of G Stands for Go-Betweens: Volume 1 also features a bonus book: a volume from McLennan’s own book collection. (Domino has hinted that there are another 1200 books in reserve for follow-up collections.) That’s entirely appropriate for them in a way that it wouldn’t have been for nearly anyone else. There may have never been a more bookish great band than the Go-Betweens, and their career had a lot less to do with the kind of massive pop-cultural success that usually engenders comprehensive boxed-set histories than it did with precious artifacts passed from one fan to another.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Various Artists: Cut Copy Presents: Oceans Apart

The “altered states” of rave music are both psychological and geographical. The former only stands to reason: in Nightmares on Wax’s “Aftermath”, the distressed diva complained of “something going round inside my head,” while the morose narrator of Adonis’ “No Way Back” was clearly “too far gone” into the void of his own mind. But alongside this narrative of interior mutation is a more intermittent counterpoint of disorienting translocation, an idea that reached its commercial zenith in the early 1990s with the new age-inflected “fourth world” tribal-dance of Deep Forest or Enigma. Before that, though, there was Jungle Wonz, a side-project of first wave Chicago house producers Marshall Jefferson and Harry Dennis. On tracks like “The Jungle”, Jefferson and Dennis fused house’s non-stop machinic grooves with a lush, verdant soundscape of eerie strings, spiraling flute solos, and teeming animal noises; a literal jungle for the ears and the body. The paradox: using early house’s stiff modern beats to short-circuit a route back to a pancultural wonderland.

The idea that Cut Copy’s Oceans Apart, a DJ mix homage to the current dance music emerging from the band’s hometown of Melbourne, Australia, should devote itself so firmly to reviving the Jungle Wonz lineage initially seems like an odd fit for the city, which spends so much time fervently wishing that it was London or New York or Berlin. Still, despite (or perhaps because of) Melbourne’s habitual northern hemispheric focus, this stripe of exoticism makes sense for, and of, a city poised on the edge of the “outback”, whose self-identity as a city of light and culture is expressed so uncertainly and felt so precariously.

The archly named Coober Pedy University Band (there’s no university in that isolated mining town) call out the elephant in the room with “Kookaburra”, its restlessly percussive tribal house groove pivoting around muted samples of chanting indigenous Australian women and blasts of didgeridoo where the bassline should be, not to mention the abrasive, high-pitched screech of the titular native bird’s cackle. “Kookaburra” is knowingly vexed, its local flavor offered up both as commentary and druggy, decontextualized sound, less celebration than disoriented haze.

Oceans Apart’s stylistic expanse is broader than these markers, commencing with the familiar, sparkling electro-disco of Knightlife’s “Don’t Stop” and closing on a run of fabulously metallic slow-motion grooves such as Bell Towers’ “After Party at Jackson’s House”. But what surprises and impresses is the dedication with which Cut Copy’s mix plumbs the depths of its “fourth world” preoccupation; the great expansionist house producers of the past such as Jefferson, Mr. Fingers, 808 State, and A Guy Called Gerald are hardly obscure or forgotten, but their more otherworldly tendencies have remained somehow liminal, faintly coloring the edges of other, more urban-centric house revivals. Oceans Apart places these explorations at the dead center of its aesthetic quest, and the result is a mix of great and distinct personality. 

Some of the individual tracks deserve florid description. Tornado Wallace’s “Circadia” is straight out of the Jungle Wonz playbook, all hollowed-out metallic snare hits, scintillating hi-hat patterns, tribal sighs, and shimmering synth-vamps, like a mirage twinkling at the end of a desert highway. Statue’s “Statue Theme” and Fantastic Man’s “Robotic Temptation” are almost impossibly pretty Balearic soundworlds of rippling, flickering percussion, eddying disembodied echoes and beguiling and childlike melodies. Len Leise’s “Call of Kati Thanda” is even more smacked out, setting quietly churning didgeridoo bass against a bereft and operatic moan. Ara Koufax’s “Brenda” takes the entire aesthetic to its pop-minded logical conclusion, offering an unabashed “Voodoo Ray” homage with endlessly percolating acid bass, strobing piano vamps and multi-layered samples from South African singer Brenda Fassie.

After so many waves of early house revivalism, it’s this sense of the naïveté of early rave music and its desire for spiritual plenitude that now sounds retro, rather than the beats that supported it. Oceans Apart recalls the heady optimism (and resulting wild cultural appropriation) of that moment with a fond nostalgia, its dreams of Melbourne dreaming of Chicago dreaming of Melbourne all in service of a bigger dream: the tantalizing possibility that maybe we’re not too far gone; maybe there is, in fact, a way back.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork