Thursday, June 25, 2009 

Looking back: The Go-Betweens

(In which, let's face it, we're far enough into 2009 that the whole '2008' conceit of this was pretty dumb, and so in the future Ian probably is going to most avoid writing any sort of best-of list in general in favour of writing up, in no particular order, albums from past years he has recently spent time listening to, thinking about or discovering. An occasional series, continued when he feels like it. And from now on we're just going to use a "Looking Back" tag for these.)

The Go-Betweens - 1978-1990

The Go-Betweens are one of those bands unheard of by most but well loved by a small and vocal contingent of fans and critics, although sadly I think more people heard about them since Grant McLennan unexpectedly passed away in 2006. If you look around for what people say about them, there's lots of talk of great songwriting, perfect pop, and so on, and all that is fair enough. It's hard to listen to any well-chosen selection of the best of McLennan and Robert Forster's best work together without noticing just how good a songwriting team the two of them were - hear something like "Cattle and Cane" or "Dive for Your Memory" and it's clear that the two them were/are craftsmen of the highest order. Although it's taken me a while to tell their voices apart (something I still can't do 100% of the time), the two of them do manage to have distinct personalities. Of them, McLennan is arguably the more lovable, especially when you hear a song like "Bye Bye Pride," which is utterly perfect for listening to while you walk around town on a bright summer's day (I know, I checked recently). Sadly, I think part of the reason I adore that mode of McLennan's so much is that I'm probably closer myself to the clenched-teeth Forster of "The House That Jack Kerouac Built" - and part of the genius of the 1978-1990 compilation is that it takes those sides of the band and brings them together in a way that makes perfect sense.

Because whatever their reputation for songcraft, the fact is that the Go-Betweens can be awfully gloomy at times (hell, a song like 1987's "The Clarke Sisters" sounds a bit like Echo & The Bunnymen in terms of grimness). I've been listening and re-listening to this compilation for the past few days; first while walking around town in the best mood I've been in for months, then again over the last night and today when I've been seized with a black and gradual disappointment with pretty much everything in my life. I don't mention that to be melodramatic, as I don't think it's either serious nor, crucially, tied to much of anything real; it's just the same old sluggish struggle against the blunt fact that I don't really know what I want to do next with my life and as a lifelong perfectionist not having a destination in mind is hard for me. It's the old 'if I can't do everything why do anything' thing. And while the Go-Betweens sounded perfect for that bright summer day when I relished just the act of being out and walking, carrying out simple errands and making myself a nice lunch, they've also sounded perfect for the last little while. True, now I'm more likely to skip to the crankily resentful "Draining the Pool for You" or the impossibly aching "You Won't Find It Again" than the cautiously joyous likes of "Right Here" or "Spring Rain," but the fact that Forster and McLennan remain so capable of giving voice to whatever inchoate mood I'm in just means that it's time for me to officially sign up as a member of the cult.

So you should seek them out - and unlike most blog posts, where that 'you' is casual, general, and easily dismissed, I mean you, as you sit here reading this. Go look up "Bye Bye Pride" on YouTube or something, I'm sure it's there. It's an amazing song, with this wonderful wide-open feeling even though the key line is "but I didn't know someone could be so lonesome / Didn't know a heart could by tied up and held for ransom." But when McLennan follows that up with "So take your shoes and go outside / Stride over stride" I'm suffused with this feeling of peace and acceptance. There aren't many songs that make me feel like everything's going to be okay no matter what kind of mood I'm in, but "Bye Bye Pride" is one of them. Of course it's one of their most famous songs, appearing even on the crippled, stunted (but widely available) compilation Bellavista Terrace: The Best of the Go-Betweens. There isn't a single good option to get into the band, seeing as how they made three (good to great) albums after they reformed in 2002, but even if they hadn't reformed Bellavista Terrace is too short and basic to do anyone but an absolutely beginner any good.

I'm tempted to say "Rock and Roll Friend" is half of the reason for that. An old b-side, it's definitely my favourite song by Robert Forster (and one he liked enough to resurrect for one of his solo albums) and it benefits immensely from the rather bitter cast his voice tends (or maybe, after his lovely post-McLennan solo album The Evangelist, tended) to have. I've never focused enough on the song to figure out where exactly it's placed between depicting a romantic relationship and a musical one, but when Forster breathes out "do something about me" on the chorus it's a carefully heartbreaking moment. Great songs about unrequited love are fairly rare, considering how often they're attempted, but the muted desperation in Forster's voice is killer. For whatever reason, his narrator is unwilling or unable to do anything himself, but listen to what he's saying: he's not even really asking for a successful resolution to whatever tangle he's in, he just can't stand the uncertainty of the situation. Whatever the song is actually about, that feeling turns "Rock and Roll Friend" one of the most moving depictions of helplessness I've ever encountered.

And while Bellavista Terrace doesn't come even close to going deep enough into the Go-Betweens back catalog to find it, the now out of print 1978-1990 does. I am deeply indebted here, as elsewhere, to Alfred Soto for my first listen to the comp back when I only knew a few songs and wanted to investigate the band, but the flow and ebb of the single disc, North American version of 1978-1990 proved indelible enough that I recently couldn't take it any more and imported the damn thing from an American Amazon reseller. It was surprisingly cheap considering (although part of me wishes I had the money to spring for the two disc version, I strongly suspect that while the extra material is every bit as worthwhile as a front-to-back listening experience it may be a case of gilding the lily) and while the Go-Betweens are a great enough band I probably should just go and find all of the albums I actually love this one enough as an album (albeit an impossibly stuffed one - 22 tracks!) that owning it isn't just about having as much of them in as small a space as I can manage. Sometimes I fall for band albums, but sometimes I fall for compilations, and if they ever do put together a properly career-spanning anthology I imagine I'll be unable to avoid resenting the fact that they skipped "Rock and Roll Friend" - or "Love Is a Sign," or "Second-Hand Furniture," or "People Say," or...

The point is, if you've ever been tempted to listen to me sound unheard with a band, go order 1978-1990 now. There are few surer bets in rock music. And while the rest of the band seems to be doing well these days (hell, I hear from their old bassist Robert Vickers every so often, he does PR now), give a thought to poor Grant McLennan, whose death is tragic in a way only unexpected, early-in-life heart attacks seem to be. "Don't you know, baby, you won't find it again?"




I knew he had cancer, but the last thing I read about him suggested that Steven Wells was going to get better. He didn't, and music writing is the poorer for it. I discovered Wells' work at the perfect time in my life - 17, just getting into music, dearly needing someone to rip down some sacred pieties - and although I can't say I always (or even mostly) agreed with him, he was a rare and vital talent. And funny as hell. He will be missed.

Edit: And I'm sorry to be tasteless, but to my mind one of the worst things about Wells dying now is that he never knew that Michael Jackson kicked the bucket. Yes, Jackson was a sad figure in many respects and I can't bring myself to feel anything meaner than pity towards him - but jesus, Wells would have had a field day, one way or another.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009 

Fear is not knowing

And today the last of my 1999 album blurbs is up, on µ-Ziq's peerless Royal Astronomy. To this day it's one of the few IDM albums that I think is really worth your time outside of the some of the big, obvious names (I mean, I probably prefer ...I Care Because You Do slightly, but Richard D. James is a little sui generis).


Makes me feel glad that I'm not dead

Feel good hits of the 23rd of June, 2009:

Harpers Bizarre - Witchi Tai To
The Clash - Police on My Back
Explosions in the Sky - First Breath After Coma
Belle & Sebastians - Expectations
New Order - Vicious Streak
Aberdeen City - Mercy
Antony & The Johnsons - Hope There's Someone
The Mountain Goats - Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod
The Go-Betweens - Right Here
Prolapse - Chill Blown

Tuesday, June 23, 2009 

Oh! How the dogs stack up

I have another 1999 album blurb up today, on Mogwai's woefully underrated Come on Die Young.

Monday, June 22, 2009 


So I think I'm mostly recovered now, enough so to get back to the job search and writing, anyway. I've got some stuff to get caught up on, but today I've got a blurb in the first installment of PopMatters' week-long celebration of the music of 1999 (it's our tenth anniversary, see). I've got a few more coming up throughout the week, but for now you can find my piece on Pole's 2 here.

Friday, June 19, 2009 

Moderate or good, occasionally very poor

If only I'd known about Permanent Bedtime last night, I might have gotten to bed before 7 am.

I wound up resorting to pirated Bob Ross videos (I swear, when I have some money, I'm going to buy the entire fucking run of The Joy of Painting on DVD), which were fairly effective.


I think my face is falling off

So I've been sidelined with a bad case of folliculitis since Monday. I haven't slept properly since last week and the multiple medications I'm on (including one often used to kill tumours that I got after I visited the hospital Wednesday morning because I wasn't getting better on antibiotics and Benedryl, yeesh) have left me more than a little braindead. I don't tend to get sick often and until the last few months I hadn't been on any medication for anything since I was a kid barring the odd aspirin, so I tend to be a real suck when I do get something.

Anyway, the medication is kicking the crap out of my rash even as it kicks the crap out of me (which means instead of tender and itchy my face is tender and flaky, which is a little discomfiting), and a few years back I finally learned that it's okay to convalesce sometimes, so I haven't been getting much work done, just taking it easy and trying to get back to my normal mental acuity. There is a new review of the Seeland record up at PopMatters, but things are likely to be quiet around here (and in terms of me responding to emails, etc.) until I'm feeling better.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009 

Always, always; forever

Stars Like Fleas just played the attic of a house five minutes from my apartment. They were incredible (so were Echoes Still Singing Limbs, who played as well). It was a really beautiful evening and I am lucky to have been part of it.

Monday, June 15, 2009 

New horizons

This morning sees my first review published over at Resident Advisor, one Sleeping Me's debut Cradlesongs. I've got a couple more reviews lined up for that site, although they may have to wait until I get back from NXNE - this week is going to be very busy.

Friday, June 12, 2009 

Looking back 2008: Phoenix

(In which Ian mostly avoids writing about any sort of 2008 best-of list in favour of writing up, in no particular order, ten (or so) albums from past years he spent time listening to, thinking about or discovering during 2008. An occasional series, but one which will hopefully be finished rather than abandoned. Ha! You thought I forgot!)

Phoenix - It's Never Been Like That

So Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is currently nestled in the #2 spot for my tentative year-end list for 2009, which maybe is a bit odd as I don't really love it any more than It's Never Been Like That, and that album only made #10 in 2006. Part of that is that I discovered more albums I really loved in 2006 than I have so far in 2009, but part of that is just that I think I underestimated Phoenix. Certainly a lot of people did and still do undervalue INBLT, especially compared to the admittedly great WAP (if I had realized the shitstorm to follow I probably wouldn't have knocked Evan Sawdey for doing so in his otherwise good review of the latter album). Of course, I've heard much of the band's first two albums and remain unimpressed by them as a whole, so I'm the weird Phoenix fan who likes them most as a rock band (which they certainly are in WAP).

Or is that it? I think the differences between Phoenix's last two albums are less about sonics and more about emotions or maybe narratives, and I think maybe the reason I prefer them to the earlier albums is that I don't think the band, and especially singer Thomas Mars, had really realized their strengths on United and Alphabetical. Sawdey refers to Mars' "disaffected croon" in his review, and at first I thought "that's not right - surely Mars' worth as a frontman is precisely in the ache in his voice?" But you listen to "Too Young" or "Everything Is Everything" or "If I Ever Feel Better," apparently classic Phoenix songs that I've always found weirdly underwhelming, and you realize that Sawdey is right - there's a disconnect there that, while not necessarily the product of the glossier, more electronic surfaces of the band's first two albums, is certainly amplified by them. Phoenix's first two albums sound callow, cynical, but also fabulous.

It's Never Been Like That is immediately different. Once you've heard it a few times, it's clear that the title isn't just from the great "Long Distance Call" - the point of it, in the song and on the album as a whole, is that it's a guy suddenly realizing that he's feeling something he hasn't felt before. It's the romantic equivalent of Nelson Muntz going "you made me bleed my own blood!" But more than that, It's Never Been Like That is an album about things ending - people move away before you can date them, you're combing through your ex's boxes of stuff looking for things to sell; the key line of the album is probably "Rally"'s "as long as you're gone, it won't happen at all." WAP, meanwhile, is about things starting up, or at least trying to; the key line there is probably from "1901." The lyrics in the CD booklet insist that it's "Fold it, fold it, fold it, fold it" but I can't help but hear "Falling, falling, falling, falling" (in a pinch you could go instead for the same song's "past and present, they don't matter now the future's sorted out"). In both cases, though, things are not working out, and crucially both albums end on a note of indecision.

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix ends not just with "Armistice" (complete with "Love Will Tear Us Apart" reference!) and its ambivalent chorus with lights going out and treaties signed, but with a further, muddled passage "for lovers in a rush" that leaves Mars wild-eyed and us unsure. It's Never Been Like That, meanwhile, ends with the as-frantic-as-Phoenix-gets "Second to None," which not only frets that "I've changed, you've changed, it's not the same!" (and immediately and futilely pleads "tell me what's the difference if I go back to normal again?"), but ends with the heated, wailed disavowal/accusation of "I thought I heard a lie, I thought I heard a liar."* In each case, after a number of songs plumbing fairly consistent thematic ground Phoenix refuse to end things with either sadness or reconciliation - things are always still up in the air, but they always don't look that promising.

And in both cases, this is such an effective choice both because of the way Mars' real strength as a vocalist turns out to be his yearning as well as how much Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai love their post-Strokes guitars, all open chiming (that, crucially, almost never resolves into anything) and how forceful and effective a rhythm section Deck D'Arcy and drummer Thomas Hedlund are. Hedlund, interestingly enough, isn't listed as part of the band on either album, but he plays drums (or his drums are sampled) on all of the songs on INBLT and WAP except for two.

But while I'm currently listening to and even maybe enjoying Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix more than its predecessor (the shock of the new, you know), I probably will always be more fond of It's Never Been Like That. "Rally," "Long Distance Call," "One Time Too Many," and "Sometimes in the Fall" are fantastic songs about the pain of someone leaving in a geographic as well as emotional sense, basically, and I started listening to it a lot in 2007, at a tumultuous time in my personal life when, yes, someone I cared about deeply was moving to the other side of the continent. You don't run into that kind of serendipitous collision between life and art that often, and when you do it hits hard. To this day when I hear Mars sing "Don't go away, we're so near... I have nothing to say but the things I know" it feels like I'm the one who's singing it. It doesn't help that "Consolation Prizes" is such a fantastic song about attraction, or that "Lost and Found" (probably my favourite Phoenix song) so precisely atomizes a certain kind of bittersweet but necessary relinquishing of ties between two people. "Let go," he sings, "It's so hard to fill me in."

That it's followed up by the self-protectively angry "Courtesy Laughs" ("I hate that kind of wrong affection / I ain't ready to talk at all / It's all lies, misunderstandings" has sometimes been a bit of a mantra for me, for better or worse) only makes the openhearted wisdom of "Lost and Found" more striking. That they're both followed by the lengthy, melancholy instrumental "North" seemed like a mistake at first but the more I listen to the album the more it seems like a particular kind of genius, in terms of pacing (both sonic and emotional). Phoenix have always made short, punchy, albums, and to their credit aren't afraid to toss in a "North" (or a "Love Like a Sunset") when it seems appropriate. And in this case, the way the succeeding "Sometimes in the Fall" briefly recapitulates "North" as a middle eight makes the instrumental not just worthwhile but crucial.

Where Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is jittery and hopeful, then, It's Never Been Like That is ruefully wise and a little mournful. Between the two albums you've got the reason why I think Phoenix is such a great band, and why they're currently one of my favourites; but since the gap between them is mainly (as far as I can tell) about the kind of story they're building rather than anything else, I don't think I'll ever get why some people seem to love one and hate the other.

*(in the liner notes, it's actually "I thought I heard a lie, I thought I heard a 'liar'," which changes the line from merely directed at the Other to one directed at both her and himself)

Previously on looking back 2008:
The Twilight Singers


Tuesday, June 09, 2009 

Summer Jamz 09: Nick Southall & Ian Mathers–”Summer Pain”

1. Spiritualized – Medication (EP Version) (8:16)
2. Mogwai – Sine Wave (4:55)
3. Dinosaur Jr. – Feel the Pain (4:20)
4. The Smiths – Still Ill (3:32)
5. Six By Seven – Speed Is In, Speed Is Out (2:34)
6. Low – Medicine Magazines (4:34)
7. Morphine – Cure for Pain (3:15)
8. Horse Feathers – Mother’s Sick (4:36)
9. Siobhan Donaghy – Overrated (4:47)
10. Frank Black – Headache (2:53)
11. Animal Collective – Summertime Clothes (4;30)
12. The Tragically Hip – Titanic Terrarium (4:34)
13. The Beta Band – Needles in My Eyes (4:32)
14. Dirty Three – Some Summers They Drop Like Flys (6:20)

Total: 63:38

I’ve had the fortune, in my life so far, to be pretty well. A serious dose of chickenpox at 19 that left me looking, after three days, slightly decomposed. A virulent bout of real, bona fide influenza 18 months ago that left both me and my girlfriend bed-ridden and hallucinating for the best part of a week. A few low-level brushes with tonsillitis. A propensity for headaches as a child. A bad back from poor computer posture, easily corrected. A series of minor football injuries – sprained ankles, twisted knees. Nothing serious. I’ve never had a blood test, or a filling at the dentist. But as I approached, and then vaulted past (in mid May) 30 years on this planet, my body has started crumbling. Ian, too, has found himself in the wars in this last few months, and with this in mind, we’ve decided to theme our mix around this common unifying factor; intense physical pain. (Nick Southall)

Our full write up, as well as the link to download this mix (properly tagged with rudimentary album art and everything), is over at The Passion of the Weiss. While you're there, you may want to note that we're far from the first (or the last) of the Summer Jamz 09 mixes Jeff is kindly hosting - plenty of familiar names from Stylus, and lots of incredible work there. Ours is a bit more, err, indie mixtape than a lot of them, but it came together really well, I think - Nick and I were definitely on the same wavelength when making this mix, every time he'd send me another song I'd go "why didn't I think of that one?" Hopefully you guys get something out of it. Enjoy!

Monday, June 08, 2009 

Sturm und Drang

Two reviews up on PopMatters today, both very different; a capsule review of Ben Klock's fine techno album One, and a live review of the incredibly amazing Mountains live show I saw - definitely one of the best live experiences I've ever had.

Saturday, June 06, 2009 

Mister Wolf won't be returning to the farm

I was sad to hear about David Carradine, of course, but honestly I never watched Kung Fu growing up, and as much as his death was a tragic, senseless waste I can at least point out selfishly that my favourite Carradine is still around (Keith, of course). But there was someone who passed away this week whose work I loved, someone who influenced me profoundly as a kid. I'm talking about David Eddings of course. I still remember reading the Malloreon series as a kid - my dad brought the first one home from the library and after I read the back he told me he wasn't sure whether I was old enough to handle them. So naturally I insisted I was (if he was deploying reverse psychology it worked like a charm) and I ran through them and then the Belgariad (followed swiftly by both Sparhawk series) as fast as I could manage. I've bought them all in the big TPB editions that have come out recently, and they hold up suprisingly well as pure entertainment - that is, I'd still like them if I was reading them for the first time now. With the benefit of my years of fondness for the characters, settings and plots of these books

Eddings worked with his wife Leigh. She only officially accepted credit in the 90s, but cowrote all of his books and predeceased him by a few years. He didn't suffer any illusions about the artistic status of his work - you have to love an author who said (in 1997), "I look upon this as perhaps my purpose in life, I am here to teach a generation or two how to read. After they've finished with me and I don't challenge them any more, they can move on to somebody important like Homer or Milton." I also loved when I first stumbled into the Eddings' work that the characters spoke in plain English (although often cleverly, or movingly, or bluntly), that rather than inventing countries of elves, dwarves, and so on, the different 'races' in his two most famous fantasy worlds consisted merely of different humans with the kind of pronounced regionally based cultural and physical differences you got in actual medieval times, how pragmatic and yet idealistic the morality their books espoused was, the way the Eddings' could make me care as much about a papal election or a flirtation blossoming into an honest-to-God relationship as much as a battle - in other words, for how they valued intelligence, integrity, humour, and affection among the heroes as much as any sort of martial or magical prowess. They were and are the kind of books and characters that I hate to finish reading, and love coming back to every few years.

I never got into their more recent works, but 18 largeish novels (19 if you count the not-quite-fiction supplemental Rivan Codex they put out that I still need to get my hands on) that I love make more than enough of a legacy for me. I'll miss them.

Thursday, June 04, 2009 

Out of this world... man

I've got a short review of Toronto band the Hoa Hoas up at PopMatters today.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009 

"We live in a country where people get killed for their views, sometimes"

Well, I don't live in that particular one, but Frank Schaeffer does. And it's kind of chilling to think of the US that way, but maybe we need to be a little chilled right now.

Monday, June 01, 2009 


God help me, I think I want this. Does my list-mania know no end?

(Honestly though, the AV Club has turned into my favourite arts/entertainment/pop culture site - I barely read the Onion proper any more, but their more serious spin off is pretty essential)

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About me

Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.

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imathers at gmail dot com

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