19 March 2005

cattle and cane : the go-betweens

click here to listen
listening time: 4m 20s

how do you discover new music? in my case with the go-betweens, it was rather long-winded. i was in singapore in 1997 or 1998, browsing at a music store in a subway station, when the shopkeeper played a song that got me hooked at the intro. it was an acoustic number with a jangly rhythm, the voice raspy but cool. i lingered, and it was love at first listen: the song was in your bright ray, by an artist called grant mclennan. for some reason i didn't buy the album, but i noted the name down. as i expected, the song stuck to my mind, and it wasn't until i returned to singapore months later that i finally bought his album.

it turned out that in your bright ray was the best track, although the rest of the album was still good enough to intrigue me. i searched about mclennan on the internet, learned of his other works, and more importantly, that he was the second half of the little-known and very defunct australian band called the go-betweens. nearly every article i read about them was raving, citing the lyricism of the duo of mclennan and robert forster, and the inevitable comparisons to lennon and mccartney and morrissey and marr. i bought the go-betweens' best-of album, bellavista terrace, and eventually every single album they released, and found the critics to be right. the band reunited about three years ago, and have since come up with two remarkable albums that remain true to their original sound.

it's easy to understand why they didn't achieve commercial success during the peak of their creativity in the 80s. for one, they never employed synthesizers. seriously though, most of their work is rendered to perfection, but as a guitar band, they were so far left of the 80s center that for a first-time listener today, i imagine it would be hard to pin down exactly what era they're from. with notable exceptions, many of their songs are a tad unharmonic, and i would even venture to call some of them experimental. being australians, they also didn't belong to any musical movement, and their lyrics are absent the angry political ramblings of punk-rock icons like the clash.

but i think this detachment only makes the go-betweens more lasting. their greatest strength lies in their songwriting, and cattle and cane is the perfect example -- sentimental and yearning of the past without falling into a gaggle of verbal cliches. the words, the melody, the marching guitar and taut percussion, and mclennan's whispering vocals with forster's haunting ad lib and backing harmonies -- they all give you a strong sense of the incomplete memory the song tries so hard to express, but you can never predict what the next line will be. i call that original.
cattle and cane
grant mclennan

i recall a schoolboy coming home
through fields of cane
to a house of tin and timber
and in the sky
a rain of falling cinders
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
i recall a boy in bigger pants
like everyone
just waiting for a chance
his father's watch
he left it in the showers
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
i recall a bigger brighter world
a world of books
and silent times in thought
and then the railroad
the railroad takes him home
through fields of cattle
through fields of cane
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
the waste memory-wastes
further, longer, higher, older
poetic, no?

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful music - the lyrics remind me of almost my own childhood. Except, our house wasn't built of timber..

    I still have my father's "Sea-Chief" watch, which, incidentally doesn't work because it got too wet in the rain one day, while I was wearing it.

    Thank you.