Reunion albums typically run the quality gamut from spectacular embarrassment to quiet apotheosis. The Go-Betweens' reunion, 2000's The Friends of Rachel Worth
, landed firmly on the positive
side of the fence, so the arrival of Bright Yellow, Bright Orange
should come as no real surprise. However, while Rachel Worth
arrived front-loaded with expectations -- could Robert Forster and Grant McLennan recapture that old magic? -- its follow-up has nothing to prove. The Go-Betweens circa 2003 are writing and recording at their own pace, on their own terms, and almost certainly have a better idea of their place in the musical world than they've ever had before. As a result, Bright Yellow, Bright Orange
is their most comfortable, relaxed
album to date.
It's also a distinctly sedate affair, its ten mid-tempo tunes firmly rooted in mid-tempoville. The Go-Betweens have never been prone to truly punkish rock-outs, and with McLennan and Forster well into middle age, their compositions have mellowed to the point of unflappability. Forget long, dark nights of the soul; this is an album for long, lazy mornings on the sun-porch, full of vivid character sketches and richly detailed scenes, their imagery defined in an economic handful of lines.
There's an openness to the music that makes these lyrics seem slightly more approachable than they actually are. Yes, the jangly "Caroline & I" is marvelously catchy; its melody offers a few unpredictable twists, and McLennan's earnest vocals add wistful weight. But who is it actually about -- Caroline, or a nameless third point of the interpersonal triangle? Similarly, in the languid "Mrs Morgan", the title character's fortune-telling reveals her neighbors' secrets. It's clearly a catastrophe by neighborhood standards, but the song neither expands upon those secrets nor addresses the consequences of Mrs. Morgan's revelations. We're stuck at the story's midpoint, wondering why Mrs. Morgan "never wanted to see the rain." However, when the song gets stuck in your head, you won't care about a resolution; you'll just hum that delicious chorus all day.
"Too Much of One Thing" proceeds at a jaunty pace, led by a sparkling acoustic guitar and supported by an upright bass rhythm. The lyrics hint at autobiographical depth, though the first hint ("You might think you see purpose / when what you're seeing is a band") is almost certainly misdirection. Later in the song, we get "What I once did so easy / Now comes in a hundred styles / Hundred styles in a magazine", which seems more directly applicable to the band's current situation. Perhaps these songs didn't come as easily as their light, airy presentation suggests.
Of course, you needn't decipher the lyrics to enjoy them. Bright Yellow, Bright Orange charms with a light, fluffy, slightly scruffy mix of acoustic and electric guitar; the melodies are intricate and unpredictable, the playing understated. The first few times you hear these tunes, they'll sound simple -- but dismantle any of the hummable hooks and you'll find craftsmanship well above and beyond basic chord progressions. You can't just pick up a guitar and play 'em, anyway.
Unlike Rachel Worth, Bright Yellow, Bright Orange doesn't hedge its bets with high-profile guest appearances -- no Sleater-Kinney cameos this time around. Adele Pickvance's bass work (electric and upright) and backing vocals are suitably restrained, and percussionist Glenn Thompson, though he's no Lindy Morrison, fills in the blanks with quiet aplomb.
Regular use of adjectives like "calm" and "understated" reveals Bright Yellow, Bright Orange's most notable limitation: it may be the most unapologetically calm Go-Betweens album yet. This max vex new listeners, but fans who've "grown up" with the group will embrace it for what it is -- a mature, elegant effort, full of richness and depth. It's as satisfying and as heartwarming as a long summer afternoon spent with old friends.