I didn’t mean to take five full months to make good on my promise, as a follow-up to this post on Danger In The Past, the debut solo album by Robert Forster, that I’d offer up some thought on its follow-up, Calling From A Country Phone, which originally came out in 1993, again on Beggars Banquet the long-time home of the Go-Betweens.
Again, I’ve picked up a copy thanks to it being reissued, on vinyl, by Needle Mythology in 2020, with the bonus of an additional 7″ single.
The first thing that has to be mentioned is that it is a totally different beast from the debut which had been recorded at the famous Hansa Studios in Berlin and the backing musicians were all part of The Bad Seeds. By 1992, Robert Forster was back in Australia, living again in Brisbane with his new wife Karin Baumler. He had a bundle of newly written songs, which he felt had a similar sort of vibe as much of the earliest material he had written for the Go-Betweens.
He decided his needs would best be met if he could return to the same small studio where it had all began in Brisbane back in the late 70s but to do so with musicians he didn’t know. Acting on advice and a tip from an old friend who ran a record shop in the city, Robert went to a well known pub venue, the Queen’s Arms, where he saw a band called COW who also had members of another band called Custard playing with them that night. He liked what he was hearing, and he asked if they would like to work with him to make a new album. All the musicians were at least ten years younger than him, and he had no idea if they would be compatible in the studio environment. It’s probably best, at this stage, to let Robert explain:-
It was risky and deliberate. I’d written ten songs from mid-1990 to mid-1992 in the Bavarian farmhouse where I had been living with my German wife. Moving to Brisbane. my aim was to make a record to the exact opposite of Danger In The Past. Why? The songs led me there, and you always have to follow the songs.
The studio…..was funky. I hired a Hammond organ for the session and a four piece band could record together in the room. We weren’t making a huge contemporary rock record; in fact it wasn’t much like anything anyone was doing at the time. Unadorned, raw, with a cracked seventies AM radio vibe to it. Listening now, I am struck by its boldness and beauty – we really did go out on a limb.
(taken from the sleeve notes to the reissued album)
The one thing I can say is that I’m pleased I didn’t buy the album back in 1993 as I would have been quite disappointed. Almost thirty years on, and my tastes are a bit broader than before and my tolerance levels that bit higher. Oh, and there’s also the fact that I’ve enjoyed many of the subsequent solo albums, as well as much of the material from the period when the Go-Betweens reformed, which means a lot more slack can be cut knowing better records would follow rather than worrying, as I would have back in the day, that Robert had lost it forever.
Calling From A Country Phone feels more like a collection of songs rather than an album which hangs well together. Most of the tracks have an Americana feel to them, with pedal steel and violin often to the fore, along with that honky-tonk piano sound that I associate with scenes set in saloon bars in films or TV shows set in the Wild West. The musicians brought on board for the album are quite clearly very good, nay excellent, at what they do, but I can’t help but feel there’s no real chemistry with Robert.
The main man perhaps has a sense of this too, mentioning further in his sleeve notes that it was unfortunate the band never got the chance to play outside of Australia and that perhaps the live experience would have better explained the record and what he was doing.
Anyways, that’s my take on it and there will likely be many folk out there who disagree strongly. The album certainly gets a very good write-up in a number of places, with references to a gentle acoustic sound melding perfectly with the wistfully rueful vocals, as well as fine country-rockers with some typically trenchant lyrics and cinematic choruses.
Judge for yourself:-
I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression, however, that I thought this purchase was a waste of money. C’mon, it’s Robert Forster and there’s a few moments on the album which could just about find themselves on an ICA of the solo material; but overall, while it’s not one I’ve had on heavy rotation since it landed in Villain Towers, it hasn’t been put in the cupboard to be completely forgotten about.
If I was to use the ratings deployed by some of the monthly music mags, it would likely be three stars; in other words, a borderline pass.