The next time you bitch and moan about bands reuniting, think about the Go-Betweens and shut your mouth! The Go-Betweens are finally getting their just desserts more than 20 years after starting out. The Brisbane quartet never received the acclaim until they were no longer playing together, stopping in 1988 after 16 Lovers Lane. But in 2000 the group reunited with some help from Sleater-Kinney to release The Friends Of Rachel Worth. While the album was highly and deservedly praised, the group’s last three albums are considered by many to be as close to perfection as possible. Now, the band has decided to re-issue these albums each with a bonus disc of unreleased, radio or new versions. It’s a great step from Elvis Costello, who has seemingly re-released his earlier albums seven or eight times. At the heart of these releases are great melodies, fine musicianship and knack for creating magical moments in a manner Morrissey and Marr did in Britain to far greater accolades.
1986’s Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express opens with “Spring Rain”, a mid-tempo countrified tune featuring the strong give and take chorus from vocalists Robert Forster and Grant McLennan. Reeking of all the melody and infectious Brit, er, Aussie pop it’s capable of, it glides along without any need for tweaking. It’s a number you’d want to replay just before it fades out, resulting in more whistling and/or toe-tapping. A somewhat Celtic folk feeling graces the winding and refreshing “The Ghost and the Black Hat”, a song never withering from its seaside accordion touches. But they up the ante again with a slow and somewhat maudlin, yet swaying, lush and orchestral “The Wrong Road”, a blueprint for what would work for Brit pop bands in the years to come. As NME writer Andrew Mueller aptly says in the liner notes, “Here was a band who knew well what resulted if you held roses too tightly.”
The strong pop sensibilities are also shown on the simple but highly polished “To Reach Me”, recalling The Cure’s early work to some degree. One highlight is the faster, urgent sound of “In the Core of the Flame” with its violins, viola or both. The hi-hat is just as crucial thanks to Lindy Morrison, propelling the song in the same way bands like Franz Ferdinand or The Killers currently have to great effect. The lone drawback might be the laissez faire attitude on “Head Full of Steam”, a track whose title misrepresents it totally. Fortunately “Bow Down” sounds timeless as the singer talks about his lover opening his mail, among other things. The subtle acoustic guitar is the icing on the cake though. After the horn-tinged “Palm Sunday (Or Board The SS Within)”, the album ends with the pristine “Apology Accepted”, a majestic, acoustic-based tune that is part pop and part alt-country.
As for the bonus disc, tracks like “The Life at Hand” packs a lovely power pop punch with its guitar jangle and buildup into the bouncy chorus. Ditto for the new version of “Don’t Let Him Come Back” with its hook-riddled guitar and somewhat kitschy organ. The revamped versions of the album tracks don’t stray far from the originals, but you are presented with 10 more, three-minute gems. “Apology Accepted” is a bit more up-tempo though, taken from a 1986 BBC radio show. Others come off like fodder or typical b-side material, including the quirky new wave hues surrounding “I Work in a Health Spa”. The sleeper pick has to be the jaunty “Casanova’s Last Words” which brings to mind The Smiths mashed up with The Talking Heads. Perhaps the oddest tune though, is the rough and ragged punk-ish live cover of the old rock and roll track “I’m Gonna Knock on Your Door”.
The band’s follow-up album, Tallulah, starts with more of the string-laced, picture-perfect melodies that contemporaries like the Psychedelic Furs and Simple Minds could only dream about. This is exemplified on the gorgeous “Right Here” as Amanda Brown adds backing harmonies while the rich textures rise to the surface. There’s a rougher, edgier side to the album though, especially on “You Tell Me” which is dreamy despite being slightly up-tempo. Urgency is also easily heard on “I Just Get Caught Out” with its summery sing-along “ba ba ba da bas” in the head-bobbing chorus. Brown seems to add a larger dynamic to the group’s already highly evolved craftsmanship, although the moody, XTC-ish “Someone Else’s Wife” doesn’t quite hit the mark.
The funky “Cut It Out” follows a different path, yet the chorus is pure gold, drawing the listener in again. “Bye Bye Pride” returns to the band’s abundant strengths - witty lyrics and music making for heavenly ear candy. A rootsy, groove-riddled “Spirit of a Vampyre” oozes the group’s earlier influences like the Velvet Underground as a minimal but impressive riff serves as the song’s spine. The airy effect also resembles “Sing”, Blur’s contribution to the Trainspotting soundtrack. “Hope Then Strife” is quite forced and almost too grandiose despite some redeeming qualities near the coda.
As for the bonus disc, there are a few shining moments, but the laidback “Time in the Desert” misses the mark, bringing to mind something Spandau Ballet might be better suited for or a Franz Ferdinand b-side. Early versions are appealing, especially of “I Just Get Caught Out”, yet some country hoedowns are thrown in for good measure, including the rollicking, honky tonkin’ “Don’t Call Me Gone”. “Right Here” was originally an up-tempo string-tune lacking a bit of punch, yet one can easily tell the gem-in-the-rough was there. “When People Are Dead” was good enough to be on the original with its lush, downbeat hues. Then there’s the doo wop finale “Doo Wop in ‘A’ (Bam Boom)”, and “A Little Romance”, a tender little ditty about swimming in Veronica Lake.
Still with me? Okay, one more to go. 1988’s 16 Lovers Lane saw Robert Forster in one headspace while Grant McLennan, in a relationship with Amanda Brown, in quite another. The end result is an album, often argued as their best, split somewhere between heartbreak and the giddy, newfound crush. “Love Goes On!” is more orchestrated and deliberate in its tone with a touch of flamenco guitar tossed in the bridge. The slow building “Quiet Heart” could be mistaken for a U2 song while “You Can’t Say No Forever” takes a different route but achieves much the same effect. “Clouds” has a certain warm island feel to it complete with Brown’s harmonies and the delightful “I’m Allright” is indeed quite alright!
The bonus disc is another half-hour of sugar-coated pop nuggets, beginning with the single version of “Love Goes On!”. “Wait Until June” is another finely executed bit of work, although one might feel they’re going through the motions on this effort compared to the wealth of other jewels at their disposal. The off-kilter timing of “Mexican Postcard” doesn’t work all that well either. Nonetheless, “You Won’t Find It Again” returns to the band’s strong suit, although it appears to be in line with Paul Westerberg. “Running The Risk Of Losing You” is strong but bittersweet since it comes from the group’s last live performance of the 1980s in Sydney. “Apples In Bed” is another downtrodden ditty with a mere acoustic guitar and voice steering it along.
On the whole, The Go-Betweens should be on the pop mantelpiece alongside The Smiths and other influential ‘80s groups. The fact they’re back together is great, but they’ll be hard pressed to top this trilogy of adorable pop. Words don’t do the music justice.