Just about living up to my promise of spending more time in the 21st century, here’s an edited version of my review of the Go-Betweens’ The friends of Rachel Worth, which mysteriously disappeared from the Tangents archive (probably during one of Alistair’s well-documented technological meltdowns). It was one of our three-way jobs, but the other two have also sadly fallen down a virtual crack as well.
NB I actually quite like Sleater-Kinney these days.
Before hearing The friends of Rachel Worth, I confidently predicted to a friend that Sleater-Kinney’s involvement would not have a detrimental effect on the album. He raised a large eyebrow, the very soul of scepticism. Never to my knowledge having heard Sleater-Kinney, it was a rash thing to say, but showed at least my faith in Robert and Grant’s judgement. On the first few listens, I was ready to concede that he was right. It seemed that just about any of the musicians Robert and Grant have worked with since the group raised a headstone to themselves in 1990 would have helped create an album more characteristic of the Go-Betweens. I thought that the reminders of Pavement – or does it all go back to Sonic Youth? – in what I take to be Sleater-Kinney-influenced elements of the sound was unfortunate. I don’t mind Pavement, you understand, I just didn’t want to hear echoes of them on a Go-Betweens record. It makes for jarring images in a familiar landscape; maples among the eucalypts.
In any case, it’s not a comeback, because they never really went away. Each have turned in fine solo efforts since 1990. I’m particularly fond of Robert’s Warm nights, with its aura of straight roads, motels and diners. This is a reunification, a resurrection of an identity Grant and Robert have carried with them throughout their solo years. Here are two well-travelled musicians, with influences from across the Western world, who have forged their own sound in records made on three continents. By fourth or fifth listen, the jarring images have faded into the background, and the opening twangs of ‘Magic in here’ start to resemble nothing so much as the Go-Betweens themselves. Further in, there are echoes of the Able Label singles, and of Before Hollywood rock’n’roll toughness, and perhaps that’s what the well-intentioned young American helpers were encouraged to evoke. Having been bowled over by their performances as a duo last year, I was hoping that Grant and Robert would use this chance to go or stay acoustic. But the temptation of being a band again must have been too strong, and since this is an album which is as at ease with itself as 16 Lovers Lane, I can’t complain.
I read that they were drama students. I never knew that, although Robert’s desperate pelvic banging of the podium on which Lindy Morrison sat drumming during a rendition of ‘Draining the pool for you’ at the Astoria in 1986 told you all you needed to know on that score. It shows in Grant’s approach too, comparatively and characteristically understated as ever. His knack for storytelling and his understanding of the weight a small detail can carry is that of a dramatic poet.
Both offer songs which could easily have been written when they were starting out. A goofy optimism combines with typical dryness on Robert’s ‘Surfing magazines’, as ephemeral as its title suggests, while Grant’s ‘Going blind’ is effortlessly pop, alarmingly sing-along. More often than not, the prevailing wind is the familiar one, the heartfelt reflection on loss and the past that also permeates the novel from which they take their name. ‘Orpheus Beach’, for example, immediately joins the ranks of bruised McLennan classics, with its yearning chorus and brooding verse.
The best Go-Betweens albums have stood the test of time as well as any made in the 1980s. Through the nineties, the memory of the majority of their peers faded while Grant and Robert’s music continued to remind us what evocative, pin-sharp song writing there could be, if only good hearts were married to individual minds. The friends of Rachel Worth has ten gems of the Forster-McLennan variety, songs I expect to find endlessly fascinating, with an edge that once again ensures the Go-Betweens dip their collective chest to win at the line.