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Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2003



The Go-Betweens: "Bright Yellow Bright Orange"

At a time and in a place where the jangly iconoclasm of The Smiths held sway, the off-center pop songs of the Go-Betweens should have been chart contenders, but the group's popularity never grew beyond a cult. Some attribute the cool response to the fact that they were strangers in a strange land; Aussies in England who understood what the market demanded, but were too self-consciously arty to meet those demands.

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It says a lot that the group's entire catalog, originally released between 1981 and 1988, has been reissued not once, but twice. In its own way, Robert Forster's and Grant McLennan's work is as timeless as that of Lennon-McCartney, another songwriting pair of opposites whose value to each other is as inexplicable as it is irrefutable. Forster and McLennan reunited a decade after their breakup, and in 2000 released the brilliant, heart-breaking "Friends of Rachel Worth" after touring with Sleater-Kinney, who encouraged them to re-enter the recording studio. Two years later, they return with "Bright Yellow Bright Orange," which is even more minimal in execution, but no less lush in terms of material.

In the '80s, Forster was the group's sardonic angel, but age has mellowed his outlook without dulling the sharpness of his melodic gifts or quelling his disposition for hanging out on the margins. "Part of me loves to fail," he quips in the rambling acoustic ditty "Too Much of One Thing," circling around a barely realized chorus and letting the song build on its own inertia. McLennan is still the sunnier singer, but he too has tempered his exuberant writing style with a ruminative melancholy. "There's nothing more that's new," he despairs on the otherwise soaring pop masterpiece "Poison in the Walls."

If the Go-Betweens' second go-round embraces reduced expectations, it also points to possibilities that most pop musicians in their position never entertain. "Want to get out of folk and into rare groove," Forster semijokes in "Something for Myself," a song that ponders the advantages of moving to "a new country where you don't know its length." They did that once before, and though they didn't become famous or rich, stimulated by the strangeness of their circumstances they made beautiful, enduring music. I think they know that.

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