Robert Forster's Warm Nights (Beggars Banquet)
Mr. Suave
Hear the Bugs Biting Down to the Seed

Robert Forster's new album, Warm Nights, is another off-kilter gem from the co-founder of Australia's elegant pop masterminds, the Go-Betweens. The songs on this fourth solo record (third with original songs) offer more of Forster's surreal lyricism and warm personality, the latter keeping his latent archness from taking over. Years of soaking up Dylan and Bryan Ferry, among other sly vocalists, have taught him how to harness the essential awkwardness of his voice to create dramatic, deadpan effects.

Warm Nights, like the equally brilliant Danger in the Past, where he was backed by Mick Harvey and other members of Nick Cave's Bad Seeds, is atmospheric and heart felt. But unlike Danger, this record is groovy. Perhaps this is because Edwyn Collins was on board as producer and guitarist. Collins, the legendary, deep crooning leader of 80's popsters Orange Juice (and 1995's most unlikely MTV hitmaker) brings a certain buoyancy and loping quaver to the mix. Especially on the wacked opener, "I Can Do," and the compelling title track that follows hard upon.

In the first, a spare but sinuous guitar line and muted drums open up a space for Mr. Suave himself to recite a rhythmic ditty with clipped precision. In this delicate song, the idea of Africa emerges as both a literal reference and in Forster's repeated, chant-like recitation of the title's words. "Warm Nights," which follows, finds a similar groove but rides it into deeper waters. Here Forster's wordplay really pays off, beckoning the listener into his own private cinema where we "Hear the bugs biting down to the seed/Hear the dopers tripping on their weed." (Am I the only one out there that thinks he sounds like Julian Cope on this one?)

"Cryin' Love," the single off the album (which charted in Australia), is campy blue-eyed soul, all sturm and drang drollery. A good time is had by all on this one. Other standouts, like "Snake Skin Lady" and "On a Street Corner," offer up the dark romantic lyricism that has nourished Forster's small, rabid fan base for years. Both are uncrowded, highly personal, and theatrical. "Fortress," with its oompah-band backing, and "Jug of Wine," with its playfully goofy organ riff a la Paul Schaeffer (David Letterman's righthand asshole) are the "experimental" numbers. While definitely entertaining, they are, in the end, a bit inconsequential. But that's good in the context in which they appear.

The two shiniest pop sides are "Loneliness" and the "controversial" remake of the Go-Betweens' "Rock and Roll Friend." Both deliver the Dylanesque, country/folk rock flavor that has framed some of Forster's most touching work in the past. "I'll Jump," the punchy fade-out to what I consider one of this year's best albums, resists closure, whetting the appetite of those of us waiting for this eccentric pop genius's next homegrown masterpiece.

--Kelley McDonald
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