What a difference a decade makes. Or not, as the case may be, at least when it comes to a new Go-Betweens records. Last heard from in album form circa 1989 with 16 Lovers Lane (there have been a number of retrospectives. Get them. Now), Robert Forster and Grant McLennan have reformed to put out another stellar record with The Friends of Rachel Worth. Their sound is so well-worn here it’s like they’ve never left. And in some senses they never did. They did one-off tours in the U.S. and Australia, revisiting Go-Between’s material, wrote a play together, and maintained passable solo careers (we can forgive Forster that covers record…errr…well…maybe not). But as the song “The Clock” says, “You’re one thing greater than all the things that you are together.” Separately they never matched the sum of their whole as a group.
So they’ve rounded up a new cast to replace Amanda Brown and Lindy Morrison (who existed briefly as Cleopatra Wong after the split), picking up Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney/Quasi) and Sam Coombes (Quasi/Elliot Smith), with some guesting from Steve Malkmus (among others). New band in tow, Forster and McLennan have settled on a gentle rawness that recalls Before Hollywood (1983), tempered by a polish that reflects well upon Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express (1986) and Tallulah (1987), and finally drawing on an acoustic airiness that extends from 16 Lovers Lane (1988) through to their solo efforts.
This is a record that nods appreciatively towards a rich past. Rachel Worth bears all the hallmarks of their sound: McLennan’s awkward but quaint rhymes (“Spirit,” “Heart and Home”) trading off against Forster’s obtuse lyrics and impressionistic reminisces (“He Lives My Life,” “Surfing Magazines”), equal parts light and dark, melancholic and uplifting, framed by their quirky and angular chords. (Listen closely to the upbeat numbers, you swear you can hear the sun in the strum). Their distinctive personae have been forged in tandem for twenty years, a partnership whose relaxed feel has always lent their sound a shimmery depth. Deftly reassembling the best bits of what made them so great for the better part of twenty-plus years, Forster and McLennan have pastiched a sort of self-styled homage to their past. Listening to this I’m taken back to the evocative and off-kilter “Cattle and Cane,” the pleading of “Hope Then Strife,” (check “Orpheus Beach” for the reference) the insistent litany of absurdities strewn throughout “The House Jack Kerouac Built” and the garage-y sing-along bababababa’s of the two decade old single “Lee Remick.”
To finish with a gratuitous namechecking flourish: For those steeped in rock history but new to these sounds, the Go-Betweens have always been the pop band Television never wanted to be (on “When She Sang About Angels,” Forster namechecks Tom Verlaine, in a rhyme with “Kurt Cobain”). And while this is certainly an admirable quality, the caprices of the pop canon are cruel and indifferent to those who might wish to climb onboard. To right a wrong and recalibrate, it’s time to sing the praises of yet another Australian band that deserves a more suitable place in pop history (others include the Apartments, the Triffids-David McComb RIP, and recent additions the Cannanes). And while the dustbin of rock history is full-to-overflowing with dozens of forgotten, neglected and forgettable hacks and hasbeens, the Go-Betweens prove why they matter with a kind of relaxed pluck that defines their entire worldview, musical output and career. With Rachel Worth they’re back in fine form.