Thursday, December 1, 2005

Records In Review: The Go-Betweens--Oceans Apart

Update (May 8/06): Grant McLennan died unexpectedly over the weekend, aged 48. Very, very, very sad.

I've put off writing about this one, 'cos I was hoping to hear a bit more of their stuff as a basis for comparison. The Go-Betweens were one of those bands that flew clean under the Robman's radar, odd considering that one of the records from their original run is widely bruited as an all-time classic. What can I say; I'm sure it was the booze, or the pills, or the depression.

Oceans Apart is the latest (2005) from the veteran Aussie songwriting team of Grant McLennan and Robert Forster. They were recording throughout the '80s, broke up, then, after several respective solo records, got back together at the turn of the millennium to considerable critical kudos. Judging by this record, I can understand why. They're very easy to listen to, with very good lyrics, minimal distractions, and an effortless and unbusy melodic way about them. Their sound is (electrified) folky and strummy, but with strong overtones of '80s radio pop; the resultant mix is a very pleasing blend of laxity and directness. McLennan is the balladeer; Forster's lyrics are more observational and his voice reminds me of The Stranglers' Hugh Cornwell: deep and plummy, without a lot of sustained notes [and just a hint of strawberry on the nose--ed.].

The songs are fairly straight-ahead, but there's considerable shifts in mood on the record, which the band executes with a minimum of muss, fuss and drama, and with the help of some nice arrangements, which include the occasional keyboard and drum machine. Forster's lyrics give his material some additional bite. My favourite of his is "Darlinghurst Nights," one of the album's more spread-out tracks, which is a portentous but wry reminiscence (fictional or no, I dunno) about the old Oz days that contains a reference to Died Pretty's Frank Brunetti. Obviously not an album geared to mid-Western U.S. radio! As with a lot of the songs here, the rhythm and lead guitars interact nicely, and there's a messy brass outtro done as only Australian bands can. The rest of his songs are pretty diverse: the terse travelogue "Here Comes A City" is nervy and rhythmically insistent, like a train travelling to nowhere, whereas the reggae-inflected "Lavender" and countryish "Born To A Family" are much sunnier. McLennan's stuff is less immediately appealing, perhaps because of his more deliberate vocal delivery, but it grows on you. "No Reason To Cry" is maybe a little too M.O.R./Crowded House for my taste, but the rest is very good and again, quite varied, with my favourite being "Boundary Rider," which is so plaintive it hurts. "Finding You" sounds obvious at first, but what it lacks in originality it makes up for with sincerity.

My one beef about this album is the production; great guitar sounds and impressive atmospheres (like on the silky-smooth "The Statue"), but crunchy and congested in places, to the extent that I once thought that my amp was shorting out (again). Otherwise, good stuff and very recommendable. To add to the album's appeal, it comes with a 6-song live disc from 2004--supposedly part of a planned full-length live album--of very high quality, which includes top-flight back catalogue like "The Wrong Road" and "Bye Bye Pride."