Saturday, 25 September 2021

Second Intermission

Today's post spotlights the songwriting genius of Robert Forster & Grant McLennan, specifically their solo ventures between 1990 and 1997. This was collected in 2007 as a 2CD set called Intermission, which I reviewed on my old blog in a regular series called Jukebox Juicebox. This review was originally posted Sunday 26th August 2007. You might need a hot drink and a packet of biscuits, it's a long one...
In the wake of Grant McLennan’s untimely death last year, a reappraisal of his solo career (and that of fellow Go-Between co-founder Robert Forster) is long overdue. A single CD and thirteen tracks apiece seems rather miserly, particularly given McLennan’s prodigious solo output. And ignore the ‘best of’ sub-title - listen to these compilations as primers rather than comprehensive overviews. It’s immediately apparent how effortlessly the songs complement one another: you can shuffle the tracklistings or even compile your own pseudo-Go-Betweens album from these songs; the end results will still sound perfect. 
A lazy shorthand summary of the music on Intermission could describe Robert Forster’s CD as earnest and intelligent (alt.) country, McLennan’s as simple, acoustic-led folk tales and love songs. The country and western references in the Forster’s songs are easy to spot: liberal use of slide guitar, pedal steel and violin; lyrics that dwell on past relationships and rekindling the fires of lost love; even a C&W cover version in Frisco Depot. Yet, Forster’s songs have always opted for complexity over simplicity and this is obvious after just a single listen. Danger In The Past, the title track from his 1990 debut solo album, is a prime example. The narrator’s account of being drawn back into the life of a friend who has recently been hospitalised (sectioned?) is hauntingly beautiful. The repetition of the title throughout the song emphasises the poignancy of the verses, notably the choice line “…I took your hand and I told you never show your problems in a country town.” I’m reminded of The Modern Lovers’ Hospital and I think it’s fair to draw parallels between Jonathan Richman and Robert Forster. 
On a different note, Danger In The Past (both the song and album) was produced by Mick Harvey, whose contributions on piano add a melancholy that underpins Forster’s searching lyrics. Forster’s final solo album included here, 1996’s Warm Nights, similarly benefits from an influential producer and guest musician, Edwyn Collins. In keeping with the album’s title, Collins brings a warmth to the three songs included on Intermission, his distinctive guitar enabling high point Cryin’ Love to rock out in an early 1970s style. 
I feel compelled to offer some criticism and it is that the album is topped and tailed by Falling Star. Despite being a great song, two versions are not required, especially given the limited selection of tracks on offer. Personally, I would have ditched Mick Harvey’s original version from 1990, as the version on 1992’s Calling From A Country Phone benefits from a superior, more spacious re-recorded take. It also seems somewhat out of place to add a cover version though, given that 1994’s I Had A New York Girlfriend featured nothing but covers, inescapable. I’m not heard Mickey Newbury’s 1971 original of Frisco Depot or, for that matter, Waylon Jennings or Scott Walker’s versions from 1972 and 1973 respectively. It’s impossible to guess whether Forster’s languid take observes or ignores any of these though, to a certain extent, it’s a moot point as in my opinion it’s the compilation’s only slight dip in quality.

Unlike Forster’s ‘mix and match’ approach, Grant McLennan’s CD2 follows a strict chronological progression through his four solo albums. Things get off to cracking start with 1991’s Haven’t I Been A Fool and Easy Come Easy Go, their immediacy and accessibility begging the question why both weren’t mainstream radio smashes and blasting out of car windows everywhere that summer. Black Mule, the final selection from debut solo album Watershed and recently featured on last year’s stunning Go-Betweens live DVD/CD That Striped Sunlight Sound, is a great example of McLennan’s lyrical skill. Evoking Australia’s past in the song’s main tale of a prospector, McLennan switches in the final verse to a man “walking down a Beirut Street” who is blown up by a car bomb. This juxtaposition of observations that “life can be cruel” should jar, but somehow works. 
The similarly wonderful Hot Water, a violin-led ballad, opens with the line “I read about your death in the paper when I was buying tomato seed”. The narrator reflects on a past spent “carrying our flowers to the barricades watching them cops kick down the door” whilst living in a present “seeing my payin’ horses foam” under a “big old sun”. It’s a moving song, McLennan’s economy of lyric and melody understating the true depth of his writing. The closing trio of songs from 1997’s final solo album In Your Bright Ray demonstrate that whilst McLennan’s songs had not evolved in the way that Forster’s arguably had, his basic template had been refined and near as dammit perfected. This is evident in the closing title track, which could just as easily sit on The Go-Betweens’ 2000 comeback album The Friends Of Rachel Worth
And that in essence is why entitling this compilation Intermission is so appropriate. Robert Forster and Grant McLennan’s solo ventures provided an opportunity for the artists with room to breathe outside of The Go-Betweens, to develop and hone their formidable songwriting skills; in retrospect, their reunion seemed inevitable. Another good title for this compilation would be Chrysalis, but Intermission really says it all; the fact that it was chosen by Grant McLennan makes it even more apt. Whether you are familiar with The Go-Betweens or not, you really do need to check out this beautifully packaged compilation. And, once you’ve fallen in love with it – and believe me, you will – then the desire to explore the rest of Robert Forster and Grant McLennan’s back catalogue will be a natural next step.
Postcript, 25th September 2021
I am a huge fan of The Go-Betweens but I still feel that I've not spent as much time with this solo period as I could have. I've followed the advice of my 2007 review and compiled my own pseudo-Go-Betweens album from these songs, mirroring the band's typical approach of 5 songs apiece, alternating between the two songwriters. What's immediately evident is that this is not The Go-Betweens, but I think I hit on something by suggesting the alternative title of Chrysalis: although it was never a foregone conclusion, this compilation is a snapshot of two artists finding their own paths, which ultimately converged further down the line to a new path as The Go-Betweens. In another bit of unintended but lovely synchronicity, both sides of this compilation ended up being (almost) exactly the same duration. Beautiful.

Side One (20:54)
1) The Dark Side Of Town: Grant McLennan (1992)
2) 121: Robert Forster (1993)
3) In Your Bright Ray: Grant McLennan (1997)
4) Baby Stones: Robert Forster (1990)
5) Black Mule: Grant McLennan (1991)
Side Two (20:55)
1) I've Been Looking For Somebody: Robert Forster (1990)
2) One Plus One: Grant McLennan (1997)
3) Falling Star (Album Version): By Robert Forster (1993)
4) Horsebreaker Star: Grant McLennan (1994)
5) Cryin' Love: Robert Forster (1996)


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