I first learned about the Go-Betweens from an article by Jonathan Lehman that ended up in Da Capo's Best Music Writing 2001 called "Not a Go-Betweens Piece". It wasn't anything Lehman said so much as the enthusiasm -- nay, the rapture-- with which he said it that got me curious enough to purchase the two-CD Jetset release of their album Spring Hill Fair. Bright Yellow Bright Orange is the second release from a reunited Go-Betweens, minus drummer Lindy Morrison.
"Not a Go-Betweens Piece" is Lehman's emotional refusal to write about his favorite band on the occasion of their reunion after a long hiatus. What spoils the reunion for him is that the original drummer, Lindy Morrison, isn't playing with them anymore. Seems that while the original Go-Betweens were together in the early- to mid-'80s, the youthful Jonathan mapped a good portion of his own romantic geography on to the triangle he imagined between the two Go-Betweens songwriters, Robert and Grant, and Lindy. Without that emotional core anchoring the band, Lehman confesses that its loss brought him to tears while listening to the reunion record. "I guess if I had to give you one reason why I'm not going to try to write about the Go-Betweens reunion," Lehman writes, "it's that I'm carrying a torch for Lindy. Her name isn't even in the thank yous. There's a story there, I know there is, and the thing is, having come as far as I have with the idea of the Go-Betweens standing in for so much of what I've felt and lost, I don't want to know it."
When I read this declaration of faith I had never heard of, let alone listened to the Go-Betweens. What would it be like to go back and listen to them without any of the mythology the original incarnation inspired? It wasn't just that Lehman was a rabid fan of the Go-Betweens. Everything I subsequently read about them shared Lehman's rhapsodic, reverent tone. The liner notes for the CD release of Spring Hill Fair are of a more conventional genre than Lehman's letter: the lament for a band that should have been appreciated but wasn't.
This kind of lament, of course, ends up working like the best of free advertising -- golden exposure. People who write about music are famous for exhuming overlooked genius -- hence the inordinate (given their originally very low popularity) amount of ink spilled over the Moby Grape, Big Star, and the Velvet Underground. The Go-Betweens are another of those forgotten idols, which is perhaps why their fans seem to hold them in such intimate esteem.
Thus I came to Bright Yellow Bright Orange without any of the personal investment made people like Lehman (who was twenty-something and living on his own in Berkeley in the '80s) so disappointed with the reunited Go-Betweens. Such heartbreaks -- which, along with "the sell-out", is one of rock's most archetypal narratives -- are the kind of thing where (to borrow a phrase) "you had to be there". For people my age, I remember it being Pavement's break with Drag City and the subsequent mainstream success of Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, their first Matador release, and the first without founding member drummer Gary Young. Where you stood on Pavement "the Band" after these changes said a lot about who you were, in those days. But now, if you listen to the whole catalogue, it is hard to recapture the sense of loss that people felt (one friend confessed a weeping scene not unlike the one Lehman describes in his "Not a Go-Betweens Piece"). Instead, you just hear a band growing and learning itself, learning how to play.
Like many bands that start out in the underground (Pavement, too), the Go-Betweens didn't know how to play their instruments well, at first. They are one of those lucky groups of people who develop a unique playing style out of a lack of formal training; but this exciting possibility does not mean those same people can't learn to play and produce interesting music. To imagine a band that way -- like the arc of someone else's life, instead of your own -- is to tell a longer story than most archetypal narratives afford.
All of which is to say that Bright Yellow Bright Orange is a lovely album, understated and tender, and indeed quite distinct from the angrier, more angular sound on Spring Hill Fair. It reminds me of a sort of lo-fi Luna, with steady strum in the place of warbling guitar solos, and a tuneful twist at the edge of shambolic, conversational vocals.
Knowing the history as I do (which is to say, secondhand) I think of Grant McLennan and Robert Forster as men who have lived long enough to look back without anger. The album's opener sets this tone of only-just-slightly-wistful nostalgia with "Caroline & I", a strummy, midtempo tribute: "Born in the very same year / Alive at a similar time / It gave me something small that I could feel".
The entire album is full of such small things that are felt rather than expressed. The album's angriest track, the has-been lament of "Poison in the Walls" -- "the revolution never calls" -- is delivered with delicacy, nodding to irony without sacrificing sincere emotion. Often enough Bright Yellow Bright Orange documents small moments in other lives, "Mrs. Morgan", which tells a story of secret, quiet redemption with strum steady as a rocking boat. The next song, "In Her Diary" also continues in the third-person perspective. Here the portrait is sketched rather than painted in sparse organ touches and acoustic guitar.
From there the album swings upbeat to the happy-go-lucky "Too Much of One Thing". Are McLennan and Forster slyly replying to the critics? "You might think you see purpose / When what you're seeing is a band." It's a sort of "Friend of the Devil" celebrating temperance rather than sin. To me it is Bright Yellow Bright Orange's unassuming thesis.
Favorite moments from this not-a-Go-Betweens-fan include the slyly twinkling chorus of "Old Mexico", which sounds to me like the musical equivalent of a desert bloom: sudden and stunning and gone before you know it.
There is one song that might be for Lindy -- but I don't really care. "She's got a place in history that's what I think / When they write that book they'll doublethink / All the dust will have to get blown away."
Certainly there's a book to be written about the Go-Betweens -- a long and smart and careful one, just like the band. But it would be a waste to leave out this last chapter -- it deserves as much attention as the first.