Reviewed on this page:
Midnight Oil - Head Injuries -
Bird Noises -
Places Without A Postcard - 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 - Red Sails In The Sunset -
Species Deceases - Diesel And Dust - Blue Sky Mining -
Scream In Blue - Earth And Sun And Moon - Breathe -
The Best Of The B-Sides - Redneck Wonderland
Midnight Oil isn't the most famous or successful rock band of the 80s and 90s, but boy do they have a lot going for them. First off, you'd have trouble finding any raucuous rockers with a more consistent political message - environmentalist, pacifist, anti-imperialist, and pro-worker. Maybe they're a little naive, but I have to admire these guys for always having tried to Do The Right Thing with almost two decades worth of thoughtful lyrics and charity work. Second, Midnight Oil appears to have more musical integrity than any other pop act to have come out of Australia - and that goes not just for total sellouts like the Bee Gees and Olivia Newton-John, but nominal rock bands like Men At Work and INXS.
And last but not least, Midnight Oil has continued to experiment musically without ever losing its unruly guitar-based energy. Most other New Wave veterans can't claim nearly as much. In sum, after tracking down almost everything they've done I've come to rank Midnight Oil right up there alongside my other favorite 80s bands: REM, U2, and XTC.
Midnight Oil doesn't have the most fascinating soap opera-style history. The lineup has been completely steady except for two changes of bass players. They've never been a massive commercial success like REM or U2, but they've periodically scored major hit singles around the world, and if anything they've become more popular over the years. They've alternated producers quite frequently, but they've never really flagged when it comes to recording and touring.
One of the most unusual things about them is their democratic musical approach, with three of the band members (Robert Hirst, James Moginie and Peter Garrett) sharing most of the songwriting credits; Garrett's shaved head, sauntering, bleating post-punk vocal delivery, and thick Australian accent make him highly recognizeable, but he's hardly the band's leader.
Peter Garrett left the band in late 2002. The band's official statement made it sound like the others planned to continue making music together, but not to use the "Midnight Oil" name.
I'm not aware of them actually having done so, but Hirst and Moginie have released independent records since then.
For the moment, though, I'll speak of the band in the present tense.
Non-commercial Midnight Oil web sites come and go so quickly I can hardly keep track of them.
Any conceivable factual information - lyrics, discographies, tour dates, you name it - can probably be found at the Dead Heart, although it was out of date the last time I looked.
There's also an official band web site, which like most of these things has way too many flashy graphics and doesn't tell you anything you can't find out on the fan sites. (JA)
Peter Garrett (lead vocals, harmonica), Robert Hirst (drums, backing vocals), James Moginie (guitar, keyboards), Andrew James (bass), Martin Rotsey (guitar). James replaced by Peter Gifford (bass), 1980. Gifford replaced by Dwayne "Bones" Hillman (bass, backing vocals), 1987. Garrett left, 2002.
Midnight Oil (1978)
There's a lot of punk rock bluster here, with screaming guitars, a warp-speed tempo, and a spartan mix. Only a few timid keyboard parts beef up the arrangements. But the band is way too methodical, practiced, and willing to dawdle to be truly punk, even when they rock out on the testosterone-drenched "Powderworks." Instead, their closest model seems to be a stripped down, unpretentious take on glam rock a la David Bowie ("Used And Abused") - it's not so far from pioneering punks like the New York Dolls.
Rotsey takes some flashy, 70s-style guitar solos ("Dust"), and on the overambitious, but impressive eight-minute guitar epic "Nothing Lost - Nothing Gained" he even aims at Jeff Beck's more dramatic, drawn-out riffery. Meanwhile, Garrett's gasping vocals are more of a limitation than an affectation; what he's really after is Bowie's stuttering mania.
The lyrics are also a mixed bag: some Morrison-like posturing, a couple of love songs, and some tentative and not very specific political protest. It's an interesting effort, particularly in the way it parallels the early New Wave movement in America (the Television-like "Run By Night") and Britain (the XTC-like "Head Over Heels"). A lot of promising signs, but the band still had a long way to go. Co-produced by Keith Walker. (JA)
Head Injuries (1979)
A solid, but relatively narrow hard rock record that lacks either the juvenile idiosyncrasies of the previous album or the consistent songwriting and creativity of their later work.
The lyrics are much better, they do come up with one ferocious, unforgettable protest anthem that ranks with their best A-sides ("No Reaction"), and almost everything has engaging riffs, bold dynamics, complex arrangements, and solid playing (the militaristic "Cold Cold Change" and "Stand In Line," which lay out their 80s rock style; "Naked Flame"; "Back On The Borderline," with a catchy refrain; "Is It Now?," with some great guitar licks).
Plus the sound owes nothing in particular to anyone, with just one distracting nod to current fads (the slightly ska-punk-ish, synth-enhanced "Section 5 (Bus To Bondi)").
But track after track features the same formula: Rotsey's arpeggiated, chorus-enhanced guitar, with several guitar hero solos; Moginie's occasional, unobtrusive keyboard experiments; a fast, pounding rhythm section; and Garrett's blaring, over-the-top, occasionally tuneless vocals.
So despite the fact that most of the songs at least briefly grab your attention, a couple of them don't really gel (the slowly-building "Koala Sprint"; the brooding, nightmarish "Profiteers").
I'd rate this and their other early discs higher if I didn't know just how much more potential the band really had.
Produced by Leszek Karski. (JA)
Bird Noises (1980)
An EP with four tracks.
They sound really tight, and they're still dishing out a lot of head-banging riffs and ear-catching beam-in dynamics.
Problem is, the material is just plain forgettable.
They try really hard on the intro track "No Time For Games," but after five minutes of swapping parts they still don't seem to have the song structure worked out.
Two of the other tracks are run-of-the-mill rockers ("Knife's Edge"), and the other is a peculiar surf rock instrumental with sci fi keyboards ("Wedding Cake Island").
So, there's nothing much going on.
And lyrically they're pretty much incoherent ("I'm The Cure"), except when they're stumbling towards some kind of a political statement ("No Time For Games").
Karski produces again. (JA)
Places Without A Postcard (1981)
By now the Oils had settled in to their 80s formula: relentlessly political lyrics matched with crisp, head-banging rock 'n' roll. What they're still missing, though, is instrumental variety; they go with distorted guitars on almost every track, with almost no keyboards or anything else - even the modest acoustic guitar on "Lucky Country" comes as a surprise.
Their songwriting has improved, with more focused, poetic, and confrontational lyrics that center on social (the ska-like "Loves On Sale") and political protest.
And there's at least one total classic in the track listing: "Brave Faces," one of their first really memorable anthems. "Armistice Day" is also noteworthy as a smouldering political piece that builds to a devastating crescendo, and "Burnie" is a moody riff tune with good dynamics. But a lot of the rest is tiresome, either with collections of interesting riffs that don't add up ("If Ned Kelly Was King") or with sludgy verses that bury the tuneful refrains ("Basement Flat"). A decent record, but not an improvement on the last one, and almost all of their later discs are audibly better. Produced by Glyn Johns. (JA)
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 (1983)
Intricately produced and mostly well-written, this is probably the band's biggest artistic statement. There are a lot of tunes with memorable choruses and exciting dynamics, like "Short Memory," carried by some great 6/8-time guitar arpeggios; the jangly, foot-stomping "Read About It" and "US Forces"; and the vaguely 50's-ish slow-dance number "Tin Legs And Tin Mines." And it's wrapped in an early 80s New Wave sound that just toes the line between post-punk aggressiveness and self-conscious electronic gimmick-mongering, with a lot of nasty, distorted guitars ("Only The Strong") and squiggly, ominous synth ("Ominous World").
For the first time you also hear crafted political lyrics on every track.
It all comes together on the single "Power And The Passion," one of the few rock recordings ever to make intelligent use of spare funk bass lines and tinny 80s synth drums (elsewhere the drums do detract from the sound).
There's little to complain about: Garrett screams his head off a bit too often, and six minutes of the sprawling, over-indulgent "Scream In Blue" are six too many. But if you take the time to listen to the record carefully you'll be glad you did. From this point on all of the band's albums were hugely popular in Australia, but it took a while for them to really get a foothold elsewhere. (JA)
Red Sails In The Sunset (1984)
Despite ever more sophisticated production, the band just doesn't have any focus this time. Their formula does work on the explosive, horn-augmented "Best Of Both Worlds"; the tension-building "Who Can Stand In The Way"; the blazing, riffy rocker "Koscuisko," which fades on a cool string arrangement; the buzzing, maniacal "Helps Me Helps You"; and the funky, updated "When The Generals Talk," which survives some embarassing ultra-left raps and silly dance floor posturing. Rotsey plays some unexpected rockabilly riffs, Moginie uses a large palette of modernistic synth noises, and there a lot of interesting little touches.
But much of the running time is dominated by unimaginative strum-a-thon anthems ("Minutes To Midnight"), bombastic epics ("Jimmy Sharman's Boxers"; "Shipyards Of New Zealand"), and complex, yet unfinished-sounding experiments ("Harrisburg"). It's creative, but offputting in the same way as XTC's contemporary Big Express, and not an essential buy. (JA)
Species Deceases (1985)
The band's second four-track EP, this is a reasonable buy but not a must-have, especially if you have to shell out big bucks to get it on CD.
The key track is "Progress," a fine guitar anthem with tons of solid riffs. But "Hercules" is also first rate, with exciting dynamics, a nice singalong chorus, and even some backwards guitars on the fade.
The other two tunes aren't as substantial but they're okay: "Blossom And Blood" doesn't do much with its intriguing chorus; "Pictures" sounds like a retread from the band's primitive, late 70s punk-rock phase. I just wish they had packaged this along with an album or the other EP on a single disc. (JA)
Diesel And Dust (1987)
Midnight Oil finally hit the big time here, with the funky "Beds Are Burning" becoming a major radio hit almost everywhere except in the US (the followup single "The Dead Heart" didn't do quite so well). It's truly one of their best tunes ever, with clever synth effects, enthralling dynamics, and a great chorus. The rest of the record is every bit as good. They almost seem to rip off REM on several catchy up-tempo tunes like "Sometimes" and especially "Dreamworld."
But elsewhere they push their own similar, and equally successful formula: a blend of acoustic or 12-string guitar strummery with abrupt electric guitar, electronic percussion, and hi-tech synth fills (the not-so-successful single "The Dead Heart," which also features a bunch of classical musicians on its long fade). Most numbers land with at least one great guitar riff, one memorable anthemic refrain, and a driving beat ("Bullroarer"). The glacially paced "Arctic World" and "Whoah" recall the last LP's over-orchestrated foibles, but they're not really so bad. Together, this is a record no fan could possibly dislike. "Gunbarrel Highway" was excised from US copies of the album and I haven't heard it. Produced by Warne Livesey, who adds some keyboards. (JA)
Blue Sky Mining (1990)
Probably Midnight Oil's commercial peak, despite much less experimentation and a retreat to relative monotony. One tune after another follows a jangly, mid-tempo rock beat through a trail of refrains and riffs.
The best example is the danceable, fast-paced title track. It was their breakthrough hit in the US, where it topped the charts - even though it flopped in Britain. The followup singles, meanwhile, are both solidy in an REM vein: "Forgotten Years," a great tension builder, and "King Of The Mountain," graced with fine counter-point harmonies, respectively hit #1 and #3 on the Billboard chart but didn't even register on its British equivalent.
The rest is solid product, but there are overproduced losers in the track selection: five minutes of the catchy, creative, and creepy, but repetitive and pompously political "Mountains Of Burma" might put you to sleep, and they get carried away with soaring string arrangements on the hyper-sincere "One Country" and the would-be national anthem "Antarctica."
Still, all of it is pretty and well-intentioned, and none of it is shoddy. Definitely a good by if you enjoy the band's late-period sound. Producer Warne Livesey makes a second appearance here, and his last for almost a decade. (JA)
Scream In Blue (1992)
With explosive performances and consistently strong material, this may well be the best live album ever released by an 80s rock band. It's a compilation of recordings from assorted concerts, mostly from 1989 - 1990, but with some songs from as far back as 1982.
Throughout, the band's ragged, emotional approach is thoroughly engaging and often devastatingly cathartic - no studio recording could possibly have captured their amazing intensity in live performance. Because most numbers are powered by Garrett's out-on-the-edge vocals and Moginie and Rotsey's arpeggiated, distorted, cross-talking guitars, it erases any memory of the synth and orchestra affectations that mar some of their 80s albums.
None of the material is new, but a couple tunes might be relatively unfamiliar ("Progress" and "Hercules," both from Species Deceases), and the others are their loudest and most passionate rockers ("Read About It," "Brave Faces," "Sometimes," etc.) - even the instrumental title track is redeemed by a taut performance.
And to top it all off, there's a remarkably quiet, bonus acoustic rendition of "Burnie" that will pleasantly surprise you after the official track listing ends. (JA)
Earth And Sun And Moon (1993)
Retro mania this time around, with a fast-paced mid-60s dance beat, trippy amplification effects, ringing rhythm guitars, blaring lead guitars, Booker T.-inspired electric organ, mellotron, layered harmony vocals, and shuffling, authentic-sounding acoustic drums. There are even some touches like harmonica, wah-wah pedals, 12-string guitars, and backwards instruments. "Feeding Frenzy" is a good example of the resulting MG's-meets-the Beatles blend; the eco-pop title track and the madly arpeggiated "In The Valley" are so cheery they almost sound like 10,000 Maniacs.
It's a heck of a lot more focused and tuneful than most of their records, with spotless performances and just the right amount of production gimmickry - each and every song has a catchy chorus. The only minus is that it falls right in the mainstream of mid-90s alternative rock; a lot of similar but less accomplished records came out during the same period.
The cleverly produced flag-burning anthem "Truganini" was a substantial international and US hit; the jangly, up-tempo pop protest number "My Country," the seriously psychedelic but impressively melodic "Outbreak Of Love" and the shimmering, riff-crazed "Drums Of Heaven" also were released as singles, with the latter two becoming hits in the US. Nick Launay returns as producer. (JA)
A new studio album. Not satisfied with simplifying their sound on the last record, the band turned the amps down and threw out the synths - but somehow managed to add even more catharsis and grit.
Garrett sings more plainly and calmly than ever, and Moginie usually bangs away on a guitar, leaving hardly any keyboards or electronic studio trickery.
On the louder numbers they lean to the blended early 70s Stones-Who/late 70s punk vibe that had been reinvented by "alternative" bands in the preceding few years.
But on the quieter ones their sound is unique, vaguely like REM-minus-12-string, but slower, saner, more acoustic, and less dynamic ("Barest Degree") - on "In The Rain" they veer into U2's hazy territory, on "Star Of Hope" they cop Neil Young's fractured shuffle, and on "One Too Many Times" they go with outright country-western.
Fans shouldn't miss out by letting their expectations for another over-produced 80s-style Oil record get the better of them. Country-western legend Emmylou Harris duets on the ballad "Home," and there's yet another new producer/ancillary instrumentalist this time in the person of Malcolm Burn. (JA)
The Best Of The B-Sides (1997)
A small treat for the fans, this consists mostly of live recordings but also includes several outtakes, a punchy but unilluminating cover of John Lennon's "Instant Karma," and a loose, feedback-drenched version of the Dead's "Wharf Rat," which they somehow manage to make tuneful.
"Ships Of Freedom" is a mellow, enjoyable piano ballad, and "You May Not Be Released" once again demonstrates the band's mastery of dynamics and uncanny ability to turn repetitive hard-rock grooves into cathartic anthems.
The live remakes are eclectic: there's a couple of early, hyperkinetic cock rockers ("Used And Abused"; "No Reaction"), a middle-period classic ("Progress"), and a jangly late-period neo-hippy singalong ("My Country").
Scream In Blue stands as their only essential live collection, and with only eight tracks total, the odd covers and outtakes don't push this even close to the level of their usual studio albums.
Despite this, you'll find the disc an entertaining diversion if you've played your Midnight Oil records to death the way I have. (JA)
Redneck Wonderland (1998)
Their loudest, most experimental effort in at least a decade, with overcharged guitars, blaring hiphop beats, and a lot of sudden tempo, volume, and stylistic shifts, plus gloomy, half-spoken vocals by Garrett (title track; "Concrete"; "Blot"; the 90s U2-like "What Goes On").
Co-produced by the returning Warne Livesey, the aptly named Magoo (apparently not that Magoo), and the band, it features booming, techno-influenced mixes that are so choppy and randomized they dissipate anything that might have gelled.
And despite everyone obviously trying very hard, the songwriting is below par.
The softer stuff, shored up with dissonant string or horn parts, is particularly weak (the tacky, boring, "Penny Lane"-influenced "Drop In The Ocean"; the depressing, piano-driven "Safety Chain Blues"; "The Great Gibber Plain").
They do come across with the usual irresistable guitar riffs on a pile of hard rock tunes - the singles "Cemetary In My Mind" (a cookie-cutter copy of their early 90s jangle rock hits) and "Redneck Wonderland"; the slowly building bad vibes-fest "Comfortable Place On The Couch"; the Earth And Sun And Moon-style groove tune "Return To Sender"; "White Skin Black Heart"; and "Seeing Is Believing," another masterful rock anthem.
But even those tracks drag on too long and diffuse themselves with overproduction.
The group's enormous talent and artistic integrity are stamped all over the record, but it falls sadly short of their usual standard. (JA)
The Real Thing (2000)
A knock-off record consisting mostly of live recordings from 1993 and 1994, plus a clutch of new studio tracks.
They use a bunch of bit players on horns, keyboards, and percussion. (JA)
Livesey produces again and has them retreat to their classic sound: sharp dynamics, crafted hooks, lively tempos, cross-talking guitars, earnest vocals ("Mosquito March"; "Under The Overpass").
With no guests, no cut-and-paste remixes, and hardly any keyboards, it's their toughest and most direct work in many years ("Too Much Sunshine").
There is a moody piano link track ("A Crocodile Cries"), and on "Say Your Prayers" they flail with a blend of ear-busting guitar distortion, swaggering big band horns, and lead-footed techno dance beats.
But otherwise it's back to basics all around, with the menu spiced up mainly by a slew of guitar effects - they do go a bit heavy on the 12-string thing (title track).
Lyrically, they're still seething with political righteousness ("Tone Poem"; "Say Your Prayers"), but more often go with hallucinatory imagery (the ambitious, heavily tweaked eight minute Beatles-style epic "Poets & Slaves").
Rotsey sounds sharper than ever (the flashy acid rock intro to "Tone Poem"), and Moginie is solidly in control; he wrote everything alone or in collaboration with Hirst or Garrett.
Meanwhile, Hillman (unless I've been misinformed and it's someone else) takes a brief lead vocal on "Luritja Way."
With so much generic material ("Been Away Too Long"; "The World That I See"), I'm not sure it's any kind of an artistic advance.
But it's still solidly satisfying.
The workmanlike, upbeat jangle-rocker "Golden Age," actually one of the more conservative efforts here, was hyped for radio play. (JA)
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