Monday, February 18, 2008

The Go-Betweens - Send Me a Lullaby vs. 16 Lovers Lane

The Go-Betweens - Send Me a Lullaby vs. 16 Lovers Lane
by Gillian Watson

Send Me A Lullaby is the Go-Betweens’ most maligned album, but “maligned” is too strong a word. It’s usually ignored, or patronised. Critics and fans don’t like it because isn’t “true” to the band’s “classic” lush, dreamy sound. They argue that the album is marred by its reliance on a gawky imitation of the Go-Betweens’ heroes, Talking Heads, and that it convulses unnaturally rather than flows. This is a fallacy: Any Go-Betweens album would be barely competent humdrum rock if not for the colour of the members’ personalities brightening the rudimentary guitar/bass/drum sound. Their music became literary and romantic as they did, and by the same logic, Send Me a Lullaby is as pretentious and clumsy as the youths who made it at the time. Robert Forster and Grant McLennan devoured music and films; they wanted to emulate their idols. And in turn, Send Me a Lullaby, their debut, is the awkward teenage cousin of their canon: Too old to be cute (no more songs about girls in libraries), they weren’t accomplished and confident enough to carve out a convincing sound of their own (that wouldn’t happen until 1983’s Before Hollywood). Lullaby is certainly ungainly, sometimes even ugly; it barely holds together, and yet, it could be my favourite, primarily because of its gaucheness. The band were at the same stage I am now—that period in your youth when everything starts getting complicated, when you love things with an ache you haven’t experienced before and don’t quite know how to cope with, when you’re old enough to have memories, when you’re old enough to realise that everything won’t turn out how you want it to. It’s painful and pretty.

Those words appropriately describe “Your Turn, My Turn,” Lullaby’s opening song. It’s an odd choice for an album opener—it’s meandering and maudlin rather than punchy and peppy. Robert Forster hesitates before he opens the door and then walks in, starts pacing in clumsy circles, disconsolate. A doleful piano and tense bassline that hint at anger and recrimination follow. The tune is awkward and aching, and yet, there’s a stylized quality to it—like the soundtrack to a lost detective TV show in black and white. It’s the sound of adolescents waking up to the simultaneous beauty and awfulness of life, but with the youth’s awareness of how romantic their own misery must look from the outside. It’s one of the album’s rare occasions where Forster displays the knowingness that was later to become his trademark. Listen to “Careless,” where he reflects on a relationship that’s got too grown up too fast: “It used to be fun/something to share/but now we’re both jealous/’cause now we both… care”. There’s none of the winking playfulness of later Forster compositions in his muted delivery—only weariness, a resigned sigh over paranoid bass and guitar that sounds like someone being shaken, a cathartic sound that signifies equal distance between beauty and suffering.

When Send Me a Lullaby was recorded, relationships in the band were constantly shifting; Forster was torn between McLennan, his jealous friend, and Lindy Morrison, his new lover. It didn’t help that Forster’s respective partners in music and romance shared an intense dislike of each other. This tension leaves its mark all over the album, from the stilted, taped-together art-funk of “The Girls Have Moved” to the album’s menacing, jarring core, “Eight Pictures.” The latter track sounds nothing like anything that follows or precedes it, yet it sums up the album’s entire mood somehow. “Eight Pictures” is Forster’s first struggle with the pain of memory: “I was working at the ice rink/Spring and summer that year,” he stonily recalls. McLennan’s bass throbs sympathetically. What makes “Eight Pictures” so singular, so extraordinary, however, is Morrison’s cameo role as the woman who has wronged Forster. Her angry, incoherent, arrhythmic drum solo storms into Forster and McLennan’s little boys’ misery party, slaps them in the faces, tells them to wake up and realise that life isn’t a Hollywood movie from the ‘40s, that human relationships are messy and complicated. “Eight Pictures,” exemplifies the whole album as a noisy and necessary argument set to music.

Perhaps if the Go-Betweens had a younger fanbase, Send Me a Lullaby would be the fan favourite. But most Go-Betweens fans have followed the band’s progress as people and grown old with Forster/McLennan. So the final album in their best-known incarnation, 16 Lovers Lane, is recognised almost universally as their masterpiece, the realisation of “that striped sunlight sound.” I hate it, but hate is too strong a word. I admire the songcraft, and the subtlety and complexity of the arrangements, of course. And the band sounds confident as ever; you’d never know it was to stand as their epitaph for a decade. But 16 Lovers Lane is the smug, annoying friend who gets into a serious relationship before you and suddenly believes she now owns the key to the universe and all its mysterious holdings. The awkwardness, the jealousy, the self-consciousness—that’s all been banished. Grant and Lindy still hate each other, Robert and Lindy are still licking their wounds after a messy break-up, Robert and Grant are still fighting to be leader, except they’ve realised they don’t need to be there any more or deal with this shit, they can get out whenever they want. The sound of 16 Lovers Lane reflects this—it’s light and diffuse, and the many professional-sounding layer all sound a mile away from each other. The group’s most abrasive (and interesting) personalities, Forster and Morrison, are silenced or dulled.

16 Lovers Lane is a Valentine’s Day album; from the title (I don’t care if it’s ironic, it’s fucking awful) to Forster and McLennan’s lyrics, which have gone from pinpointing indefinable emotions to rolling around in cliché and meaninglessness like pigs in shit. What is a “quiet heart”? Where is the wit and originality in lines like: “No matter what you say/no matter what you do/I wanna be the one/and love is a sign”? Forster isn’t in a relationship; he’s watching on the sidelines while his best friend’s bathing in the glow of first love, and the best he can muster is a limp “I’m all right”? 16 Lovers Lane makes me feel nothing, and it hurts me more with the Go-Betweens than anyone else, because their songs grow from emotions. They’re not about interesting dynamics or danceable basslines. Without emotion, there’s nothing. Except, of course there must be emotion in 16 Lovers Lane—just not a one I identify with. It must capture the sound of being in love, otherwise so many adults I respect wouldn’t champion it. It has been much more successful than Send Me a Lullaby, and not just critically, but it’s actually reached people. It’s easy to find; by contrast, I had to pay £17 for an Australian import of Send Me a Lullaby that took two months to arrive. Even if I played Send Me a Lullaby to my friends, I doubt they’d be interested—it’s too self-conscious, too monochrome, it doesn’t “rock out” enough. Play 16 Lovers Lane to anyone who likes a good tune and they’ll come round. But for me, Send Me a Lullaby is the most successful Go-Betweens album. It perfectly captures this period of my life: jealous glances and doors slamming and mattresses heard creaking from the other side of a wall. 16 Lovers Lane sounds like receding hairlines and stonewashed denim and pleasant drives with your attractive wife in a saloon car. It’s the sound of slippers warming by the fire. I have nothing against warm slippers; there will come a time in my life where I look forward to putting them on. But right now, that’s not what I’m looking for.

Gillian Watson is about twelve and therefore has written fuck-all, apart from a news story about Castlemilk that she wrote for her work experience at a free newspaper two years ago. [actually, she's sixteen -ed.]


Friday, February 8, 2008

Long Fin Killie - Amelia

Long Fin Killie - Amelia
by Nick Southall

You probably haven’t noticed because you probably don’t pay attention to bylines, and I have no idea who’s reading this blog anyway [please tell us! –ed.], but I’ve pretty much retired from music journalism since Stylus closed its doors last Halloween. There are a few reasons – mortgage, kitten, increasingly demanding day job – but primarily I have no desire to write for anywhere else about anything new. Maybe I’m getting old.

Perhaps because of this I feel ever so slightly… emancipated, in terms of my music listening. Free from the pressure to keep up with what’s current or exciting, I’ve found myself spending a lot of time over the last three months or so listening to old music – be it Ethiopiques, ‘60s British jazz, Tropicalia, or ‘90s post-rock – no longer feeling any impetus to stay abreast of new releases, and instead listening to things I generally already know, as and when the whim takes me.

Guilt and panic are occasional bedfellows; sometimes I’ve felt culpable for listening to the same thing over and over again like I used to a dozen years ago. Other times the endless shelves of CDs have over-faced me, left me totally befuddled as to what to listen to or how to even choose.

All I’ve listened to lately has been Caribou and Long Fin Killie. A year ago I’d have been distraught by this. Today… I luxuriate in it. So when Mr. Weiss asked me if I’d like to throw something his way for these pages, it was an easy choice; I always meant to write something substantial about Long Fin Killie for Stylus, but ran out of time and heart. So here goes.

A (very) quick history: Too Pure courted Luke Sutherland, Long Fin Killie’s black, gay, Scottish bandleader, for two years during his tenure fronting orthodox guitar-shakers Fenn, but were never quite convinced enough to sign them. Eventually Sutherland told them Fenn was over, that he’d been working on another band in secret, that they were the real deal, and finally ready to be heard. And so Long Fin Killie emerged, precocious and practically fully formed, with a tune called “The Lamberton Lamplighter,” an extraordinarily weird, homoerotic pop song. An album followed, its aesthetic composed of ancient woodcuts, poetry, guest appearances by Mark E. Smith, elongated and indulgent musicianship, dulcimers, violins, thumb pianos, mandolins, bouzoukis; pastoral postrock meets shoegazing prog. 1995; 1996; 1997; three albums in three years, lots of touring. That’ll do.

Amelia, like Long Fin Killie’s previous two albums, was named after a tragic hero – Ms. Earhart followed Harry Houdini and Rudolph Valentino – and is clearly still the work of Long Fin Killie. Intricate, intelligent, intuitive, indulgent and intense, but also very different from what the band had done before, the album was the result of a conscious attempt to produce something more concise, more industrial, more muscular, less pastoral. Gone from the sleeves are the lithographs of earlier releases, for instance, instead replaced my ultra-modernist impressions of architectural shapes, the monochrome sweep of something that might be a drawing of a space station or an abstracted photograph of an improbably engineered suspension bridge swooping across the cover. This modernisation is reflected in the music.

Amelia features none of the extended, minimalist grooves that had LFK lumped in with the postrock crowd at times; barely anything stretches past four minutes, and the multi-layered, pointillist tapestries of instrumentation are subsumed into something different. Guitars chug and grind in aggressively repetitive patterns, bass is deep, deep and deeper still, informed more by techno’s slickened textures than rock’s organic pastures – many of the electronic elements that would inform Bows, Sutherland’s post-LFK group, were introduced here.

After Valentino, for reasons unbeknownst to me, Long Fin Killie acquired a new drummer: the merely amazing David Turner replaced by Kenny McEwan, who was, improbably, even better. As a result Amelia is characterised by the relentlessly skittish, drum ‘n’ bass-esque rolls and tumbles of his breakneck time-keeping, the sonic positioning of tom-tom strikes and rattling snare rolls a superior precursor of the kinds of rhythms that would make Bloc Party’s debut seem so out of the ordinary eight years later.

But beyond the tightening of arrangements and quickening of already-quick tempos, the bones of Long Fin Killie’s songwriting – intelligence, irreverence, an unpredictability that manifests as surprising catchiness – remain almost intact, if made more sophisticated by the increased brevity. Let’s take “Kismet” – there’s something suspiciously like a cowbell being hit on an extraordinarily kinetic offbeat beneath the inspirational scree and metronomic tumble, the tune starting with a foreshadowing guitar riff and double-note bass pulse that could start hearts in a coroner’s lab – drums flying everywhere, towers of noise emanating from brass, the most insistent rhythm driving everything while oceans of sucking, squalling, wild guitar and Sutherland, the beautiful, passionate centre of it all, spit inspiration and bile back at the haters – “Jungle rhythm in the DNA / Disco in the gene pool but I’ll put my dancing shoes away.” Complex sentiments and more complex arrangements that would previously have unfurled over six or eight minutes are here rammed into barely four.

“Kismet” is followed by “Resin”, a beautiful repeating build that finds itself subsumed by resonant violin timbres, the riff moving upwards in beatific contrast to its predecessor. It’s moving, emotive, gorgeous – and finished in a little over three minutes. Horns gather and grow throughout “Chrysler” as Sutherland speaks out a list of something, an indictment or diatribe – the lyrics aren’t included in the sleeve and the musicianship and arrangements are so staggeringly attention-grabbing that it takes a superhuman feat of concentration to decipher his poetics at any given point.

What else is there? So much to mention – “Lipstick” is something akin to live drum n bass as performed by too-precocious Scottish kids – the rasping, sexy refrain of “ah yes”, the “ah” strung out, the “yes” swift, sibilant. The album version features programmed drums courtesy of remixer Grant Macnamara, but the original (included on the single), was no less percussively impressive. Gasped whoops make up the infectiously wordless second half of the exploding, desirous chorus of the staggering “Headlines”; get a load of those amazing, accelerant guitars as the tune climaxes. Wow! And the breathy vocals, distantly groaning guitar bows and off-beat tom hits of “Ringer”…

Perhaps the key thing about Long Fin Killie, and in particular their extraordinary musicianship, is the fact that nowhere in their entire career is their consummate skill manifested in the kind of “look at me, ma” soloing that tips so much music beyond acceptability; sure, Sutherland, Colin Greig (bass), Phillip Cameron (guitar) and Kenny McEwan (like David Turner before him) play like virtuosos, but it’s all about teamwork, about balance and subtlety, about being a group. Sutherland may have ostensibly been the bandleader and frontman, but his vocals are often blurred and hidden behind chiming and roaring guitars and rumbling bass – even when they suddenly take centre stage in “Yawning at Comets”, it’s to further the reason of the tune rather than become the reason.

Have I tempted you into either revisiting or newly investigating this yet? Aside from the brain-boggling musicianship, awesome arrangements, and intriguing lyrics, maybe I should mention the outstanding engineering, mixing and mastering on display? Long Fin Killie’s records were always exquisite on the ear in terms of detail, space, drive and timbre, but on Amelia that exquisiteness is blasted into the future in a way that very few boys with guitars were even comprehending in 1997. One might mention Radiohead and that ornery albatross, but their records were always polished off with an impersonal, mass-production sheen. In fact, more than a decade later, barely anyone even now is managing to sound like the future without that future being the one with the boot stamping on a face forevermore. Ah, fuck it; Long Fin Killie are the best band to ever come from Scotland.

Nick Southall has written for Stylus Magazine, The Guardian, LA Weekly, East Bay Express, Grooves Magazine, among others. His article “Imperfect Sound Forever” was selected by Da Capo for the 2007 edition of their Best Music Writing anthology.