Early reports that the Go-Betweens were recording their first record in 12 years with members of Sleater-Kinney caused longtime fans much consternation. It seemed like a horrible combination -- Sleater-Kinney's raw grrl power-punk overpowering Robert Forster and Grant McLennan's delicate arrangements and well-woven songs.
But the collaboration is less odd than you'd think. The Go-Betweens started out as a jittery rock trio inspired as much by Australian punk forefathers the Saints as by Bob Dylan. It was only over the course of six albums that the group grew softer and more, ahem, mature, reaching a slick (but not slick enough for radio) sound with 1988's 16 Lover's Lane. The songwriting duo -- especially Forster -- has always courted doom and gloom, even if its words are more foreboding than fierce.
In the long run, all the theorizing proved academic, since the full lineup of Sleater-Kinney appears on only one song. For the rest of the record, Forster and McLennan are joined by S-K drummer Janet Weiss, her Quasi-mate Sam Coomes on organ, and Adele Pickvance on bass. The group finds the perfect middle ground between anarchic buzz and cocktail-hour gloss -- the songs are minimal and concentrated, stripped of all that is unnecessary. There's a touch of accordion on the opening song, "Magic in Here," and some cello on a couple of tracks, but, otherwise, it's a guitar album without solos or feedback.
That simplicity puts the onus on the lyrics, which have always been considered the duo's strong suit. In songwriting terms, The Friends of Rachel Worth recalls the White Album, the record the Beatles wrote separately and recorded semitogether. While Forster and McLennan are on far better terms now than the Beatles were then, each songwriter brought his own songs to Larry Crane's Portland studio for this effort. And it shows, but not necessarily in a bad way. Forster's songs are tougher and more narratively based, spun forth by details like surfing magazines, German farmhouses, and the corner of a girl's eye. McLennan's tunes are hookier and more romantic; he's apt to sing about magic and Orpheus, and is able to give meaning to a line like "There's ice around your heart/ My home."
They say all good things must come to an end. With Rachel Worth, the Go-Betweens show that's not always true. Unfortunately, the album also shows why commercial success continually eludes them. Instead of putting "Going Blind," one of their catchiest songs ever, up first, the Go-Betweens bury it near the end of the album.