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.

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Various Artists: Inherent Vice OST

Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice gave filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson an outlet for his more antic, erratic impulses. Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 film Inherent Vice, meanwhile, gives composer and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood a chance to indulge his inner Hollywood romantic. As a composer, Greenwood has mostly been called on for slashing chords, thick string textures, and foreboding. But “Shasta”, which opens the Nonesuch OST and appears early in the film, opens on a rosy blush of strings and woodwinds that calls to mind sinuous old Hollywood scores. It is by far the most conventional orchestral music to emerge from his pen.

The soundtrack, sequenced out of order from the film and featuring a few spots of dialogue, read by Joanna Newsom, is a series of blindsides, which takes the conventions of the Raymond Chandler detective story down a series of batshit rococo detours. The film aims, as did Pynchon’s book, to blur the question “Whodunit?” until it looks more like a dazed “Whuh?” The soundtrack, which crab hops from psych-rock to Minnie Riperton to Disney orchestral interludes, faithfully recreates this sensation of dislocation and head-scratching befuddlement. No matter where Doc Sportello was in Inherent Vice‘s sun-baked, taupe-and-polyester landscape, it was the wrong place, and the selections are a series of similar awkward encounters.

The second selection, after Greenwood’s plush opening, is Can‘s “Vitamin C”, a gonzo piece of insect-throated avant-rock that hits you in the face like a scalding cup of gas station coffee. It shares time with Neil Young‘s idyllic “Journey Through the Past” and the medicated lounge lizard cheer of Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki”, all of which finds itself jostled up against bits of Greenwood’s score, which tries on some truly weird duds: The misty strings and woodwinds on “Meeting Crocker Fenway” don’t feel far from John Williams’ Harry Potter scores. The vaguely Morricone-esque “The Golden Fang” features mallet percussion and guitar arpeggios that shimmer like exhaust off a motel parking lot.

If this soundtrack were a room full of furniture, in other words, you would shield your eyes from the clash. But it might actually make for a sleeker and more condensed vehicle for the film’s stoned, clammy energy than the film itself, which sank into a narrative tar pit in its last hour and tested the patience of even PTA’s most steadfast devotees. It’s exciting to hear Greenwood stretch into new styles, and “Adrian Prussia” is incredible, a crunching meeting point between digital static and strident violins. Like the movie, the soundtrack is a pungent, incoherent, occasionally haunting trifle. The feeling is of a bunch of intelligent and talented people trying on a bunch of funny-colored clothing and giggling at each other. If you’re not wearing the costumes, there’s a limit to just how entertained by all of it you can be.

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Black Milk: If There’s a Hell Below

Black Milk is a paradoxical artist, one defined by both wild reinvention and stasis. To this point, every other Black Milk album is a corrective, somehow a refutation of the album that came before it. He keeps pressing reset and then playing the game the same: Tronic was his vaunted abandonment of vinyl fetishism for synthesizers; Album of the Year his embrace of live-band instrumentation; No Poison, No Paradise his nightmare-filled stab at creating a ’70s soul epic. But put them on shuffle and the delineations disappear—they all sound like Black Milk tracks. On If There’s a Hell Below, for the first time, he consciously takes a sonic mulligan, trading in the same murky Castlevania synth-lines, wrecking-ball drums and dark-night-of-the-soul wails as its predecessor. 

So, why does it sound better than that album? Because it’s a new Black Milk record, which always sound incrementally closer to some Ideal Black Milk Album that may or may not ever exist. This makes him a difficult artist to love, but an easy one to like. He’s constantly halving the distance to his target, getting closer but not quite getting there. But those infinitesimal improvements on Hell Below—indeed, the very places where it remains static—show, in some ways, what that Ideal Album might look like.

Most importantly, he’s acknowledging where his talents lie. The old line on him is: great producer, shitty rapper. If the dude could quit spitting double-time platitudes about getting faded backstage, the thinking goes, he’d release a great record. On No Poison, No Paradise, though, he dialed back his eagerness on the mic and let the beats breathe. This trend continues on Hell Below, particularly on “Story and Her”, a sprightly, smooth-jazz Tribe throwback that evokes Q-Tip more than Dilla. Over soft vibes, Black Milk drops sing-song come-ons that tumble organically into a low-key verse. The lyrics are as trite and sanctimonious as can be (think Dizzee Rascal’s “Jezebel”), but as the beat morphs, halfway in, to a keening, insistent guitar lick, Milk follows suit, with a wide-open flow painted in blank space. The crooning intro melts into an almost spoken-word outro, with a rhyme scheme that snaps into place as if only to tug the verse onward.

He sounds, in other words, good on the track—a first for the emcee. He repeats the feat on the nearly 3-minute conclusion “Up & Out”, which is just a drum loop, some scratches, and a delirious, stuttering mic performance. In both instances, he raps in reverence of the beat, letting his glorious drums hit without shouting punchlines over them. Elsewhere, he resolutely does not screw up highlights like the proggy “All Mighty”, the dense, clattering “Quarter Water”, or “What It’s Worth”, which recalls early Kendrick Lamar, of all people, in its tuneful sense of melancholy. He’s always seemed to want to be Black Thought, but he comes across more like T.I. on the best parts of Hell Below, saying very little but saying it well. 

The focus, then, stays on the production, which is, as usual, an absolute feast. He’s grown fond of the mid-track left-field switch-up, sometimes just for a bar or two (“Hell Below”, “Scum”), and of the short, dusty outro loop (pretty much every track). While this might sound scattered, in practice it’s just the opposite: He’s settled down a bit, flicking between beats with Madlib’s ease. A lot of his earlier stylistic about-faces were because of an anxiety, a tension between analog and digital production methods, which a recent LP and EP (tellingly called Synth or Soul and Glitches in the Break) seem to have eased. He found the ghost in the machine, and so he’s agitating less over realness—over fidelity to the “old school”. The music on Hell Below is one big wistful wash of sound, unified, but full of idiosyncrasies. (Bun B, for example, raps atop a bed of trilling flutes.)

We often talk about listening to Black Milk rap as the cost of entry for listening to Black Milk produce. That’s cold, but valid: his relatively flat collaborative work suggests that he saves his best beats for himself. But perhaps it’s also a mis-framing of the argument, in light of Hell Below’s success. In an interview with Complex last year, he referred to an incongruous blast of free jazz on No Poison, No Paradise as “a Spike Lee movie … written via a rap song.” A more skillful emcee would recreate Lee’s sense of place and character with words, but Black Milk needs the music to do the talking. On If There’s a Hell Below, he lets it.

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