It's probably small consolation to Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, but the obscurity in which they labored for most of the '80s has primed their music for a renaissance. Forster and McLennan founded the Go-Betweens, one of the decade's best unknown bands, two decades ago in Australia. From 1981's terse, jumpy "Send Me a Lullaby" to 1988's lush, expansive "16 Lovers Lane," the two singer-songwriters developed a swooningly melodic style while honing their perceptive lyrics. Even such sweetly sparkling late songs as "Streets of Your Town" and "Was There Anything I Could Do?" have a complex aftertaste.
Both of those tunes are included on "Bellavista Terrace," the new compilation that is actually the second Go-Betweens retrospective. Unlike the nine-year-old "1978-1990," this one is designed for newcomers. It avoids obscurities and tentative early work in favor of 14 of the band's most accessible tracks, from the lovely "Bachelor Kisses" and evocative "Cattle and Cane" to the edgier "Draining the Pool for You." Trenchant yet romantic, austere but tuneful, these '80s songs constitute one of the best albums of the '90s.
Of the 13 songs on "78 'til 79: The Lost Album," "Lee Remick" and "Karen" were released as the band's first single (and have been reissued since) and three others were later remade with the benefit of improved technology and skills. The remaining tunes, recorded on a two-track machine in Forster's Brisbane bedroom, find the fledgling Go-Betweens sounding a bit like the more Dylanesque tracks on the '60s garage-rock compendium "Nuggets." These songs are word-smart but beat-driven, with pumping energy and bookish flourishes. Most people who enjoy "Bellavista Terrace" won't want to follow the trail all the way back to this album, but these embryonic efforts have held up better than Forster and McLennan's circa-1978 haircuts.
Pop-rocker Tim Keegan has some notable friends, including Robyn Hitchcock and Drugstore's Daron Robinson, who appear on Keegan's eight-song "Long Distance Information." He's also a logical tourmate for Forster and McLennan, since he shares their gift for tunes that sound inevitable yet unexpected. Keegan can't yet compete as a lyricist, but the stylistic assurance and melodic exuberance of the jangling "Simple Man" and the horn-driven "Lucky" suggest that hearing him continue to develop his craft will be a pleasure.
Robert Forster and Grant McLennan appear Thursday at the 9:30 club with Tim Keegan and the Candy Butchers.
To hear a free Sound Bite from the Go-Betweens, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8122 ("Bellavista Terrace") or 8130 ("78 'til 79"). For a free Sound Bite from Tim Keegan & the Homer Lounge, press 8123. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
CAPTION: A retrospective from the Go-Betweens' Grant McLennan, left, and Robert Forster should draw new fans to their work.