Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Go-Betweens

  • Before Hollywood [Rough Trade, 1983] B+
  • Metal and Shells [PVC, 1985] A-
  • Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express [Big Time, 1986] A-
  • Tallulah [Big Time, 1987] A
  • 16 Lovers Lane [Capitol, 1988] A-
  • 1978-1990 [Capitol, 1990] A
  • The Peel Sessions [Strange Fruit, 1991] A-
  • Spring Hill Fair [Beggars Banquet, 1996] A
  • Bellavista Terrace: Best of the Go-Betweens [Beggars Banquet, 1999] Neither
  • 78 'til 79: The Lost Album [Jetset, 1999] Choice Cuts
  • The Friends of Rachel Worth [Jetset, 2000] A
  • Spring Hill Fair [Circus/Jetset, 2002] A-
  • Before Hollywood [Circus/Jetset, 2002] Choice Cuts
  • Send Me a Lullaby [Circus/Jetset, 2002] Choice Cuts
  • Bright Yellow Bright Orange [Jetset, 2003] B+
  • Oceans Apart [Yep Roc, 2005] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Before Hollywood [Rough Trade, 1983]
"I've got a feeling, sounds like a fact/It's been around as long as that," goes my favorite hook of the past few months, which is something of an aberration: in the great tradition of post-modern pop these folky-arty Aussies abjure melody much of the time, though the second side does begin to sing after a few plays, and after much longer the textures on the first assume a mnemonic aura as well. A little static for rock and roll, but as poetry reading goes, quite kinetic. B+

Metal and Shells [PVC, 1985]
When what the Brits call pop isn't popular, it's usually rock and roll chamber music if it's any good at all. This U.S. debut, a best-of that highlights the soulful ache in the vocals and the quirky opacities in the lyrics and does what it can for a modest tune sense, honors that suspect notion. It's not stylized, and not static either, but it's pretty subtle, and its half-finished edges and kinetic lyricism are best appreciated in tranquility if not repose. Where it can be expected to unfold for quite a while. A-

Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express [Big Time, 1986]
The lyrics, which set oblique but never opaque romantic vicissitudes against a diffidently implied existential world-historic, aren't the secret of their lyricism, and why should they be? These Aussies make music, with Robert Forster's intensely sincere vocals and Grant McLennan's assertive but never pushy hooks pinning down the melodies. Granting all reservations about the form itself and with apologies to skillful romantics from R.E.M. to XTC, there are no popsters writing stronger personal love songs. I doubt there are any page poets envisioning more plangently, either. A-

Tallulah [Big Time, 1987]
They stick to what they know, and their knowledge increases. The quartet's a quintet now, up one violin, which may not seem like much but does serve to reinforce the hooks that have never been a strength of their understated, ever more explicit tales from the bourgeois fringe. So though I was pulled in by "The Clarke Sisters"--"They sleep in the back of a feminist bookstore"--I soon got involved with every song on the album, with a special rush for "Right Here," where Robert Forster or Grant McLennan, I still have trouble telling them apart, stands by his woman. A

16 Lovers Lane [Capitol, 1988]
The title may portend the worst kind of major-label move, but their worst is pretty good. On the straightest and catchiest bunch of love songs they've ever produced, the likes of "Quiet Heart" and "Love Is a Sign" admittedly cry out for a little tension. But so does "Streets of Your Town" until you notice the battered wives and butcher knives. To put it simply: they ain't the Smithereens. They're smarter, they're nicer, they're tougher. And they're still the romantic poets good popsters ought to be. A-

1978-1990 [Capitol, 1990]
Half best-of, half collectorama, this gets you coming and going: you had no idea the album highlights would mesh into perfect pop, and you had no idea the 45-rpm obscurities would coalesce into imperfect pop. What threw you off was that they always seemed too serious for pop, too grown up. But once Robert Forster and Grant McLennan stooped or leaped to melody, they were serious fun in spite of themselves. And bookishly static though they seemed, they were also a band. Forster and McLennan provided the internal tension--subtle friction at its most personal and its most cooperative. Lindy Morrison made sure they moved. A

The Peel Sessions [Strange Fruit, 1991]
The quality of the B sides etc. on 1978-1990 surprised fans who thought they were buying greatest semihits, and like any world-historical pop band, the Go-Betweens were more than a song vehicle--they had a drummer. The four fine fast ones on this 1984 broadcast session--a B from 1978-1990 and three I'd never heard--rock tougher than you'd expect from their 1984 studio LP. I propose a posthumous live. A-

Spring Hill Fair [Beggars Banquet, 1996]
In the Indian summer of a formal moment, singer-songwriter-guitarists Robert Forster and Grant McLennan joined a shifting lineup headed by steadfast drummer-inamorata Lindy Morrison and mercurial violinist-inamorata Amanda Brown to fashion as deep and intricate and prematurely mature a body of traditional relationship songs as, oh, Joni Mitchell herself, who should only have accessed half their empathy and synergy. Hiding their hooks in arrangements and lyrics as often as they brandished them in tunes, they were modest, affectionate, funny, cheerful, never too oblique or ironic--pop for the ages if anything is. But with the 1978-1990 compilation now import-only, novice songseekers are confronted instead by a remastered, reannotated six-album oeuvre. So acquire them all, I guess, thusly: Tallulah (1987, Amanda and "Right Here"), Spring Hill Fair (1984, produced yet rough), Before Hollywood (1983, austere yet gorgeous), 16 Lovers Lane (1988, poppest), Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express (1986, talkiest), Send Me a Lullaby (1981, punkest). Accounted too damn subtle for a U.S. market whose favorite Aussies were MTV flukes and whose favorite Brits had surrealistic haircuts, these Brisbane-bred Londoners' first three albums were never accorded the decency of official U.S. release. This is my paltry attempt to extend a nation's apology. A

Bellavista Terrace: Best of the Go-Betweens [Beggars Banquet, 1999] Neither

78 'til 79: The Lost Album [Jetset, 1999]
"Karen" Choice Cuts

The Friends of Rachel Worth [Jetset, 2000]
See: A Short Long Story: The Go-Betweens in Love. A

Spring Hill Fair [Circus/Jetset, 2002]
The new "expanded" version, which I'm not plugging for Spring Hill Fair, a classic those who care already own, but for the bonus disc, if you can believe that--outtakes, mostly, plus a B side and a 12-inch instrumental they must have put out as a joke and one from the lost 1978-1990 best-of. Often raw or gawky, lyrically or instrumentally--and busting with circa-1984 we-can-do-no-wrong. "Newton Told Me" and "Sweet Tasting Hours" could go on their set list tomorrow. A-

Before Hollywood [Circus/Jetset, 2002]
"Man O'Sand to Girl O'Sea," "This Girl, Black Girl," "Hammer the Hammer" Choice Cuts

Send Me a Lullaby [Circus/Jetset, 2002]
"Sunday Night," "I Need Two Heads" Choice Cuts

Bright Yellow Bright Orange [Jetset, 2003]
They say they're a band again, and I believe them--bye Forster, bye McLennan, welcome back Forster-McLennan. What I don't believe is that they're as integral or rocking a band as they once were, or that the strummy arrangements turn back on themselves like they should. But after longer than any neutral party will wait, the songs flower if not bloom into tints subtler than the noontime hues of the title. I don't mean the opener, which snaps into place with a classic identiriff, or the one where Robert wants to go to Brazil. Those are quick. I mean every single song. Too slow, too slight, still remarkable. B+

Oceans Apart [Yep Roc, 2005]
Robert's songs more tuneful in their maturity, Grant's more atmospheric, they punch 'em all up to make a stronger impression than on their comeback album, thus proving that it was one. Settled down in real life, Robert recaptures his peripatetic past with a clear conscience and a sharp eye; still questing, Grant couches his romanticism in instrumental subtleties that soften his detachment. Robert so fond, Grant so elusive, both so beguiling, they're deeply civilized for the leaders of a working rock band. And for just that reason they can follow the calling until that distant day when strumming itself is too much for them. A

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