Grant McLennan was taught to play and drafted into The Go-Betweens by Robert Forster. Because of this, he’d never played with another band when they split in 1990. After releasing an album with The Church’s Steve Kilbey as Jack Frost, McLennan launched into a solo career, working with New Zealand’s Dave Dobbyn.
He withstood a broadside from Sydney upstarts Smudge, their 1991 single ‘Don’t Want To Be Grant McLennan’. He branched into Americana with 1994’s Horsebreaker Star. He only recorded four solo albums before rejoining Forster in the reformed Go-Betweens. He passed away prematurely in 2006, at the age of 48.
Objectively, McLennan solo is one of the weaker artists to get his own page on this site – he’s better in The Go-Betweens with Forster’s angularity to balance his sentimentality. But I love McLennan’s warmth, and I’m enough of a fan to track down his solo work. At the least, if you’re a Go-Betweens fan it’s worth checking out Intermission as a career summary, or Fireboy and Horsebreaker Star, his strongest solo efforts. His solo records are tricky to get hold of – only the compilation Intermission, which is missing a few of my favourite McLennan tracks, is currently on Spotify.
Grant McLennan Album Reviews
McLennan used New Zealand singer-songwriter Dave Dobbyn as the producer for his first solo record. At the time Dobbyn was known for his quirky arrangements, like the bamboo flute synth pad on his solo hit of ‘Slice of Heaven’, and some of his nuttiness spills over onto this record. Combined with McLennan’s warmth and straightforward approach, the pairing of two cheeseballs is sometimes too much. Without Forster’s artier compositions and twitchy rhythm guitar to provide balance, Watershed is more lightweight than the Go-Between’s catalogue. Former Go-Between Amanda Brown and Australian singer/songwriter Paul Kelly are among other contributors.
There are enough good songs for McLennan’s half of a ten-track Go-Betweens record. Forster and McLennan had demoed songs for a seventh Go-Betweens record, tentatively titled Freakchild, before they split. For a hypothetical 1991 Go-Betweens’ album, the five McLennan songs could be the folkish ‘Black Mule’, the elegant closing ‘Dream About Tomorrow’, with its pretty string break, and the trio of ‘When Word Gets Around’, ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’, and ‘Haven’t I Been a Fool’, which all showcase McLennan’s casual melodies built around acoustic guitar strums. There’s a bit too much 1980s cheese in the arrangements sometimes – the drum machine of ‘Putting the Wheels Back On’ hasn’t aged well.
Watershed is a disappointment after a great run of albums with The Go-Betweens – it’s straightforward and predictable – but if you’re a fan of McLennan’s humane, hummable songs, it’s worth hearing the highlights.
Fireboy is another Dave Dobbyn-produced album, but it’s completely different in character. It’s darker and more substantial. It seems likely that McLennan had most of the songs for Watershed before The Go-Betweens wound up, and therefore it’s Fireboy that’s largely informed by his breakup with Amanda Brown. Brown unceremoniously dumped McLennan when he informed her of The Go-Betweens’ dissolution. In particular, the standout track ‘Fingers’ and the lengthy, angst-ridden closer ‘Riddle in the Rain’ are haunted by Brown. McLennan sings “But I’m still a long way/I’m not even close/Tell me who do I pay to get rid of your ghost” in the latter.
McLennan and Dobbyn succeed in squeezing every inch of diversity out of Fireboy. There’s plenty of jangly pop, like lead single ‘Surround Me’ and ‘One Million Miles from Here’. But they dip into aggressive rock on ‘Whose Side Are You On’, gospel in ‘Bathe in the Water’, and the abrasive, spoken-word ‘The Pawn Broker’, a much better effort than The Go-Betweens’ ‘River of Money’. They sensibly keep the arrangements barebones in emotive tracks like ‘Fingers’ and ‘Riddle in the Rain’, with little more than piano and acoustic guitar respectively.
Fireboy is an excellent sophomore album from McLennan, successfully compensating for the lack of Forster’s balance by dabbling in the abrasive and the austere.
For his third album, McLennan travelled to Athens, Georgia, and recorded a 24-song double album with Americana flavours. There’s always been country in McLennan’s musical DNA – he’s originally from Rockhampton, part of northern Queensland, a country music stronghold in Australia. A single-disc American edition with 18 of the songs, and with ‘Lighting Fires’ from Fireboy added as a bonus track, also exists. The more relaxed, and less desperate-for-a-hit, approach, works well for McLennan. Horsebreaker Star is a terrific album where the most problematic issue is that it’s homogeneous and overlong – the second disc drags in the middle until ‘Girl in a Beret’ snaps it out of its stupor.
Opener ‘Simone and Perry’ is an effortlessly hooky song, while there’s a gorgeous cover of The Byrds’ ‘The Ballad of Easy Rider’ that suits McLennan’s warm voice. ‘What Went Wrong’ has such an engaging hook and stack of lyrics that I barely notice the eight-minute running time, while ‘I’ll Call You Wild’ adds an insistent pulse behind its beauty. There are so many pretty, well-constructed slow songs that it’s the fast material that stands out; ‘Girl In A Beret’ has power-pop punch, while McLennan is sincere enough to pull off the duet of ‘All Her Songs’.
It can be a little overwhelming with little stylistic variation and a lot of slow songs, but Horsebreaker Star is a treasure chest show-casing Grant McLennan’s songwriting.
In Your Bright Ray
McLennan was relatively quiet as a solo artist in the second half of the 1990s. There was also a Jack Frost album with Steve Kilbey in 1995 and a record as Far Out Corporation in 1998, but In Your Bright Ray stands as McLennan’s final studio album. After the ambition of Fireboy and Horsebreaker Star, it’s a return to the breezier feel of Watershed. McLennan’s joined by a band of Australian musos – Brett Myers of Died Pretty and Wayne Connolly of Knievel on guitars, Maurice Argiro of Underground Lovers on bass, and Tim Powles of The Church on drums.
In Your Bright Ray is pleasant and has aged gracefully, but it feels a little lightweight. There are numerous nice tunes, but few standouts. The title track is elegant in its simplicity, while ‘Malibu 69’ allows McLennan’s band a chance to show their chops in an uncharacteristically prickly rocker. My favourite, though, is ‘Comet Scar’, a pretty piece of jangly pop-rock and an unsung gem in McLennan’s oeuvre. ‘Sea Breeze’ introduces the character of Mrs. Morgan, later given her own tune on a Go-Betweens reunion record.
In Your Bright Ray is pleasant, but something of a comedown after two records where McLennan stretched himself.
Intermission (Grant McLennan disc)
In 2006, the two chief Go-Betweens each compiled 13 of their solo tracks from the 1990s for a joint compilation, a few weeks before McLennan’s death. Intermission only collates tracks from McLennan’s four solo albums, and doesn’t cover the two albums he made with The Church’s Steve Kilbey as Jack Frost or his 1998 album with Far Out Corporation.
But McLennan’s Intermission is a handy sampler for his four solo albums – even though Fireboy and Horsebreaker Star are strong records that are worth exploring. Half of my favourite McLennan solo songs are missing – the most egregious omissions include ‘Fingers’ and ‘Riddle in the Rain’, emotive pices from Fireboy, while ‘Simone and Perry’ from Horsebreaker Star is the kind of effortless, mid-tempo, humane song that McLennan wrote so well.
Intermission is a strong solo portfolio for McLennan – despite a couple of omissions, it’s an excellent selection of songs that tell the story of McLennan’s time away from The Go-Betweens.
10 Best Grant McLennan Songs
Simone & Perry
Riddle in the Rain
The Ballad of Easy Rider
Easy Come, Easy Go
Girl in a Beret
In Your Bright Ray
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