09 May 2006

in his bright ray : grant mclennan, 48

Okay, so I'm not the most indefatigable blogger around. I said in my last entry that I'd be writing about Grant McLennan "in a couple of hours." That was two days ago. Don't you just hate it when work and stuff get in the way of blogging? Now I'm off to India in a few hours, so forgive me as I yak my way through another post. Let's carry on. Here are three songs by Grant in honor of a great man of music from Down Under. That's the least I can say about one-half of one of my all-time favorite bands, The Go-Betweens. Those of you who have read this post will know that Grant had me hooked from the time I heard the first five notes of his song In Your Bright Ray. McLennan died in his sleep in his home in Australia on May 6th. And so The Go-Betweens – one of the most under-appreciated bands in the history of pop music – is no more.

streets of your town : the go-betweens
click here or on the image below to listen

Grant wrote Streets Of Your Town as an homage to Brisbane, his hometown and also the place where he met his maker. After Cattle and Cane, I think this is the next quintessential McLennan song. He had always been on the pop side of The Go-Betweens, which he formed in 1978 with University of Queensland buddy Robert Forster. Although for the most part they never glazed their rugged sound to befriend the charts, Grant wrote this song, from their sixth album 16 Lovers Lane, with the intention of finally making it in the UK charts. It got close, but not quite, and that is the singular curse of the band. "I think we are a pop group, but we're the most unusual pop group there's ever been," said Grant in an interview before the album was made. Recognizing the lack of immediacy in their sound, Grant added: "Although we work with melody, we sometimes work against it, and that's like one of the cardinal sins of pop music. People often mistake subtlety or reticence for naivete or wimpiness. If people do that, then it's quite pathetic. You just can't have those two qualities if you want to be in the charts, so that's our dilemma."

haunted house : grant mclennan
click here or on the image below to listen

Following record-label woes over the years, and perhaps out of burnout, the band called it quits in 1989, although after reforming in 2000 they said it was a mere hiatus. During the 11 years in between, Grant proved how prolific he was with his sedate acoustic guitar and nostalgic songwriting, releasing four solo albums, starting with the confident Watershed in 1990. To me, Grant was at his writing best when he drew sketches of his past with sharpness and the pathos of a sepia photograph, as he did with Cattle and Cane. Lost love is a theme he often wrote about, and I prefer his imagery to abstract thought and straight-from-the-shoulder storytelling. In Dream About Tomorrow, from Watershed, he sang: Nothing much happens here anymore; They're shutting down the lines; they're boarding up the stores. Their shotguns and their pick-up trucks; the railroad and the rolling stock. During his solo years, Grant also took liberty with melodic experimentation, incorporating the tumbling sound of country music in his double-disc album Horsebreaker Star in 1994 – just when grunge music was crossing over to the mainstream. While anger filled the airwaves, Grant wrote, as he said in an interview, "a bunch of songs about footsteps and change and, kind of, dirt roads, you know, underneath a sky full of stars." Was he being irrelevant, or just timeless?

do you see the lights : grant mclennan
click here or on the image below to listen

Regardless, Grant struck the right notes with my acoustic-guitar-loving ears. And that voice that half-sings and half-recites poetry – a vaguely familiar blend of passion and fury – manages to pull you in without actually calling attention to itself. It's probably best heard in his live acoustic version of the grave ballad Quiet Heart, from a session at KCRW in 1989, while promoting 16 Lovers Lane. You can easily imagine him singing it with his eyes closed, drawing power from his gut. "They're pulling the record back and putting that version in," joked Robert Forster. I think Grant reached his vocal peak in his last solo album from 1997, also called In Your Bright Ray, where Do You See The Lights comes from. By the time he and Robert reunited to make the album The Friends of Rachel Worth in 2000, the strains of a more mature age had become evident, although that was of little consequence to the fact that The Go-Betweens released some of their best songs during this decade. Now that the indie reign of the band is over – I'd hate to see Robert Forster bring a stand-in – Grant is for our memories and this humble post to keep alive.

1 comment:

  1. Ashley17.5.08

    i know this is an old post but I came upon it in a search..do you have the original photo that you used in the third icon for do you see the light?
    if you do, can you email it to me at irish-star@hotmail.com