There's a seductive aural shimmer in even the darkest song by the Go-Betweens, a band often likened to an Aussie R.E.M. during its original run in the 1980s. Unlike the cryptic, kudzu-covered sprawl of early R.E.M., the group headed by Robert Forster and Grant McLennan made craftsman-like jewels about love and loss.
And despite smart, sometimes arch lyrics and effortlessly melodic songs like "Streets of Your Town," "Spring Rain" and "People Say," the group -- even after nine albums -- has remained a well-kept secret, at least in the United States.
"Accounted too damn subtle for a U.S. market whose favorite Aussies were MTV flukes and whose favorite Brits had surrealistic haircuts," Robert Christgau wrote in a Village Voice review of some 1996 reissues, "these Brisbane-bred Londoners' first three albums were never accorded the decency of official U.S. release. This is my paltry attempt to extend a nation's apology."
It's on the reunited band's mind as the members begin their first full-band tour of the States since their 1989 breakup.
Forster -- speaking via telephone from Germany near the end of a European tour for the Go-Betweens' third post-reunion LP, "Oceans Apart" -- says the band's low stateside profile used to bother him.
"But I've come to see just how massive a country it is," he says. "If we'd made some sort of impact on broader America, it would have had to be some massive stroke of luck: Something from left field, a song in a movie, Marilyn Manson coming out and saying 'the Go-Betweens are my favorite band of all time,' Britney Spears covering one of our songs.
"It also requires a year and a half touring, in a Winnebago bus, around the States three or four times. We go there, we play, we support the record as best we can, and then you just leave it to the gods."
This time out, Forster feels more confident than usual leaving the matter in divine hands.
"Oceans Apart" was released last month by Yep Roc to wide acclaim, including five-star reviews in Mojo magazine and the Guardian (both British, naturally). The duo's show Saturday at the Troubadour will offer their invigorating recent work as well as the pleasure of hearing the best of their early songs without tinny '80s production.
"This is the first time since 1989 we're touring America as a functioning rock band," Forster says. "I feel in a way we're presenting ourselves for the first time."
The Go-Betweens began in late-'70s Brisbane. "We were doing the same theater course at university," McLennan says, "and I noticed this tall fellow carrying a Talking Heads record, '77.' I didn't think anybody else in Australia was listening to it. It was great to meet someone you felt wasn't going to beat you up, and who was as bad an actor as you were."
McLennan, then working at the university cinema, passed his fascination for film to Forster, who transferred his love of music. Forster's roots are in Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, and English and Scottish rock of the '80s, while McLennan leans toward '60s West Coast bands like the Mamas and the Papas. The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan and punk are common ground for both, as is a fondness for novels and poetry.
Appropriately, the Go-Betweens' first songs were recorded to two-track in Forster's high-ceilinged bedroom, lined with posters of Dylan and Godard films.
Bands with two songwriters have a musical range and potential emotional sweep that one-headed monsters can rarely summon. Mojo's Andrew Male described the breakdown as "nervous braggadocio [Forster] and reluctant loss [McLennan]."
Their differing styles and voices blend together from song to song the same way Richard Lloyd's and Tom Verlaine's guitars come together in the music of Television.
The division of labor allows the two to work mostly independently, before coming together a few months before the record to turn each number into a Go-Betweens song.
"We're two distinctly different songwriters," says McLennan. "But we kind of let that go for the good of the song and the good of the band. We can sit down, and Robert's not trying to advance his louche, dandy, kind of abstract, diffident view of the world -- and I'm not going so far down my, apparently, wistful, nostalgic, memory-driven, melodic McCartney-esque sort of thing."
Still, Forster says the solo years were important for both of them. The break allowed Forster to learn about the recording process, especially while working with the Bad Seeds' Mick Harvey, producer of Forster's harrowing and personal "Danger in the Past," his first post-band album.
Nearing the '89 breakup, Forster says, he had a firm sense of where he wanted to go. "The band had just become a bit of a monster. To do something quickly, with a lot of emotion, just didn't seem to be on."