Playback: The Go-Betweens/Paul Siebel

Music Features The Go-Betweens

While they never made more than a ripple commercially during their original 12-year run (from 1978 to 1990), Australia’s Go-Betweens nonetheless tend to rank rather high on critics’ lists of the best bands most people have never heard of. Led by their two distinctive—and distinctly different—singer/songwriters, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, The Go-Betweens recorded prolifically (a half-dozen albums released between ’82 and ’88) and toured regularly in both Europe and the U.S., generally doing precisely the things groups are supposed to do in order to be successful. Yet, outside of a fiercely loyal cult following that included plenty of those aforesaid critics, they were never able to connect with a mass audience and, tellingly, broke up right at the end of the 1980s.

Having begun as punk-inspired pop-rockers, The Go-Betweens progressed to the point where their lineup featured violinist/oboe player Amanda Brown. The incurably ironic Forster and incurable romantic McLennan had already cycled through the requisite rites of passage as growing tunesmiths, just as the last vestiges of ’80s New Wave were dissolving into the fabric of alternative rock and its yowling stepchild, grunge. Perhaps, just as tellingly, Forster and McLennan quietly spent the ’90s as solo artists but reunited just before the stroke of the millennium, bringing The Go-Betweens name back for a second go-round that so far has produced two new reflective CDs.

The reunion has also led to the reissue of the band’s back catalog, with its final three albums—Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express (’86), Tallulah (’87) and 16 Lover’s Lane (’88)—now simultaneously appearing courtesy of current label, Jetset. Each double-CD package includes both the original release and an accompanying set of demos, alternate takes and b-sides, and even videos for each album. For the uninitiated, Tallulah is a great introduction, featuring several signature works by the group’s chief writers, most notably McLennan’s infectiously chorused shoulda-been-hits “Right Here” and “Bye Bye Pride,” as well as such characteristically edgy Forster compositions as the undertowing “House That Jack Kerouac Built” and “The Clarke Sisters,” a haunting character study of spinsters that perfectly captures its author’s eye for detail. For aficionados, it’s a wonderful opportunity to relive the promise and optimism of the New Wave movement.

Speaking of alternatives and artists most people haven’t heard of, Paul Siebel was one of those singer/songwriters who seemed to get noticed only by others in the trade. A surprising number of songs from his modest body of work (two albums for Elektra on either side of the ’60s/’70s decade line) went on to be covered by performers like Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt and Waylon Jennings. An upstate New York native with a trace of Dylan in his vocal tone, Siebel was a folkie who leaned pretty far towards country music, and, as such, he may have been completely ignored were it not for the popularity of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, which helped bridge the gap between the two then politically opposite genres.

In any event, Siebel’s stunning ’69 debut, Woodsmoke and Oranges, strode the line between them with gentility and grace, standout compositions like the pacifist-themed “My Town” and “Then Came the Children” seamlessly co-existing with honky-tonk styled ballads like “Any Day Woman” and “She Made Me Lose My Blues.” Featuring steel guitar, fiddle and some dazzling acoustic guitar and dobro from then up-and-coming instrumentalist David Bromberg, the album was followed in ’71 by the nearly as good Jack-Knife Gypsy, whose roster of accompanists (Bernie Leadon, Clarence White, David Grisman) and blend of ballads and narratives underscored Siebel’s eclectic approach. These days they’d call it Americana music, but back then there wasn’t much room at the inn for someone like him; after a while Siebel simply disappeared from the scene altogether. Both albums have now been reissued on a single CD as an import on WEA International—and what a pleasure it is to finally not have to worry anymore about my scratched-up vinyl copies.

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