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Robert Forster & Grant McLennan - Intermission: The Best Of Solo Recordings, 1990-1997

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Artist: Robert Forster & Grant McLennan

Album: Intermission: The Best Of Solo Recordings, 1990-1997

Label: Beggars Banquet

Review date: Aug. 24, 2007

Between their magnificent songwriting and their occasionally dodgy production choices, the Go-Betweens awed and aggravated in equal measures. Their initial run between the late ’70s and 1990 took them from modest beginnings in a Brisbane, Australia teenager’s bedroom to moderate international success and utter exhaustion. The fatigue was an inevitable consequence of the clash between Grant McLennan and Robert Forster’s ambitions (they were equally inspired by the Monkees and Bob Dylan, and played the British press game by explaining in interviews just why they were better than Madonna) and the reality that highly elegant and twisted song-craft was not a hit-making quantity in the age of the Material Girl; their attempts to beat her at her own game required fans to get past some pretty ghastly drum sounds. Forster and McLennan’s reunion, which was cut short in 2006 when the latter died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 48, yielded two splendidly modest records, comfortable with their own cultish qualities and a final reach for the brass ring whose slickness provided this old fan with a few déjà vu moments of irritation and admiration.

Intermission culls 13 not-quite hits from the solo career that each Go-Between pursued in between the band’s two runs, and the way it doles out rewards and annoyances should be familiar to any fan that is hearing this stuff for the first time. Neither man managed to make a solo grand slam, a fact that is reflected by the fact that there are no hits on these paired greatest hits collections, and neither managed to top the personal best established by songs like “Cattle And Cane” or “Twin Layers of Lightning.” And yet there are songs on both Intermissions that would drive any self-respecting songwriter to self-amputation if it would secure them the right to claim them for their own.

Forster’s is more consistent. Far less prolific that McLennan, he only produced three records of original material and one cover album. But there’s not a clinker in the bunch. The bulk of them mine exceedingly difficult ore imposed by personal circumstance – what does a writer who has excelled at dissecting flawed relationship do when he falls in love and gets happily married? Musing on the “Danger in the Past” is one option; singing other peoples’ blues, as he does on Mickey Newbury’s “Frisco Depot” (a song also performed by both Scott Walker and Waylon Jennings) another. But on “I’ve Been Looking For Somebody” he takes the harder road and writes quite movingly about happiness. Perhaps resigned to his cult status, Forster never seems to try to for a massive pop single, but each song insinuates itself into your mine with layers of meaning and melody. And each avoids the old Go-Betweens flaw of bad production by opting for a spare, country-tinged approach that stays fairly consistent and tasteful regardless of whether it was Mick Harvey, Edwyn Collins, or Forster himself behind the board.

McLennan labored under the burden of greater expectations; his were always the Go-Betweens songs singled out as the ones that ought to be hits, and his smoother vocal delivery clinched the illusion of user-friendliness. But his ’80s-vintage pop confections always hid a razor blade of sadness or cruelty in the cake. The best songs here continue in that tradition; “Easy Come Easy Go” sounds cheery enough to be played in the clothing store of your choice, but its lyric drips poisonous details about personal betrayals, and the loving pledge that opens “The Dark Side of Town” comes to naught. And he could play it straight with sterling results; “In Your Bright Ray” weds a gorgeous melody to a melancholy vocal so perfectly that you wonder, for the umpteenth time, why wasn’t this guy’s song the hit of the year?

But other songs crash on the rocks of bad arrangement choices. Who let that Spanish guitar into the Left Banke-ish “No Peace in the Palace?” Why the generically ugly rock moves on “Malibu 69?” Such moments remind me of the last time I saw the Go-Betweens, a year before McLennan’s death. During the encore, he put his guitar down and made like Bono on a too-anthemic rendering of “Cattle and Cane,” trying way too hard and coming up with less for his effort. But I guess it wouldn’t be the Go-Betweens without some wrong move somewhere, would it?

By Bill Meyer

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