Robert Forster's last album, The Evangelist from 2008, was steeped in grief and loss after the sudden death of his friend and Go-Betweens musical partner Grant McLennan. After its release, he retreated from active music making to write award-winning rock criticism that's been collected in the volume 10 Rules of Rock N Roll. He also compiled G Stands for Go-Betweens, the first of three retrospective box sets, and drafted his memoirs. Forster also produced records by Brisbane’s the John Steel Singers and Halfway. Scott Bromley and Luke McDonald from the former are part of the cast of multi-instrumentalists who assist Forster on Songs to Play. The remainder are violinist and singer Karin Baumler (his wife) and touring drummer Matt Piele. Recorded in analog with engineer Jamie Trevaskis, these songs are direct and kinetic, full of hooks, rich in metaphors and irony, and a sleight-of-hand confessionalism. The set opens with "Learn to Burn," a genuine rocker with a bumping vamp between electric guitars and violin, a pulsing bassline and ticking snare, hi-hat and bass drum: "Time's a signal and you/Wait for changes/And the problem is ya' know/I got no patience...I'll stop for petrol/And I'll stop for Dylan/But that's the limit when/I get moving…" Though rock & roll riffs are in your face, the quirky pop spirit of the Go-Betweens is never far away. It shines right through the sparkling romance in "Let Me Imagine You," the Jonathan Richman-esque "The Poet Walks" (complete with a mariachi trumpet solo) ("And given two choices/Two clear choices/I take both…"), and the deft, angular hook that brings on "I Love Myself and I Always Have." The latter is a song more bitingly honest than ironic with its skittering snare and country-esque outro. Many songs here contain another easily marked reference: the Velvet Underground of "Run, Run, Run," "I Heard Her Call My Name," "Who Loves the Sun," and "Lonesome Cowboy Bill." Forster makes no attempt to hide it; he weaves their impact on him tightly inside his own aesthetic sense for melody and clear-voiced, first-person narration. Other notable cuts include the jaunty, Farfisa-kissed rocker "I'm So Happy for You," the love-worn reminiscence "Turn on the Rain," and the biting lament "Disaster in Motion." Songs to Play finds Forster at his most energetic and free. While this set can't be regarded as "unrestrained," these spirited, well-crafted songs offer rock & roll in a manner he's never even hinted at before.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek