The Oils clear out their musical garage, with generally superb results.
It's genuinely weird that a band as venerable and storied as Midnight Oil has been so little anthologised over the years.
Most comparable bands would have all sorts of legacy-enhancing-slash-barrel-bottom-scraping collections out in the marketplace by now, but not the Oils. In fact, the relative paucity of product (a handful of best-ofs and live albums) has been matched by the near-impossibility of getting hold of many of their original albums in any decent format until relatively recently. Even classics like 10-1 and Red Sails in the Sunset spent decades available only on low-quality mid-price CDs, when they existed at all.
Thankfully the announcement of the band's reactivation and world tour has been accompanied by the re-release of all the band's material on vinyl and CD – in big fancy box sets, no less! - and a proper, overdue trawl through the band's archives. It seems appropriate that instead of putting out a steady stream of coffer-filling live recordings, b-side and demo collections, documentaries and concert DVDs, the Oils do the whole lot in one hit.
The price tag alone means that the four CD/eight DVD Overflow Tank is something that only a devoted fan would purchase, which is a good thing: there is material here that only a devoted fan would want – or, for matter, endure.
Such fans, however, are going to love the absolute hell out of this.
Let's start with the least interesting bits first: the Lasseter's Gold disc of unreleased demos, and the b-side compilation Chiko Locallo.
The first doesn't turn up any lost classics. Five of the 12 tracks were from the Blue Sky Mining sessions and the most appealing - the Hirst/Moginie "Wreckery Road" – would later be resurrected for Ghostwriters, while "A Sunburt Sky" was a first draft of Moginie's solo song "A Love So High". What's perhaps most noteworthy is the inclusion of two songs named after (and performed by) the pre-Oils versions of the band – the scrappily inept joke jam "Schwampy Moose" and the atmospheric instrumental sketch "Farm", which are historical curios you'll listen to once and never, ever again.
Similarly, the Oils were not a band that wasted great songs on b-sides, although "You May Not Be Released" has a late-night swing and you can't fault the intent behind earnest polemics like "The Last of the Diggers" and "Ships of Freedom", especially when compared with the studio sound experiments "Frontier... What Frontier?" and "Kingdom of Flaunt".
Most of the songs are from the band's nineties era and tend to be more mid-paced ballads and Garrett's idiosyncratic voice means that cover versions tend to sound incongruous rather than appropriate – proven here with their versions of Russell Morris' "The Real Thing" and Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love & Understanding?" - although the dark groove of 'Heaven & Earth' is begging to be sampled for a modern EDM track.
The live recordings fare rather better, however. Not only were the Oils a band who were at their best on stage, as demonstrated on the career-spanning compilation Punter Barrier BPM, their thumping 1978 Live At The Wireless recording arguably does a better job than their self-titled debut album at capturing the raw energy of the band at the time.
But the real gems – the things that will have fans fishing down the back for change – are the DVDs, which are uniformly excellent.
The best of the several live DVDs on offer is undoubtably Oils on the Water, the band's legendary Goat Island gig for the tenth birthday of Double/Triple J in 1985. It remains one of their definitive live performances (and it's surprisingly adorable to see them stumble on the complex stop-starts of "When The Generals Talk") – and if that's the band at their juggernaut peak, their 1993 MTV Unplugged set goes some way to proving Jim Moginie's assertion that they were basically a folk band under their rock trappings.
The absolute first thing to watch, however, is the documentary Only the Strong: the making of 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. If you're a fan of the Oils – and, as asserted earlier, you won't have this thing if you're not – watching the double-act of Moginie and producer Nick Launay scamper through the multitracks of the album that made the band's career is both fascinating and inspiring (so that's how they got the "sproing!" sound at the beginning of "US Forces"!), and the interviews with Peter Garrett and Rob Hirst are equally illuminating.
Black Rain Falls is a short doco about the band's 1990 protest performance on a flatbed truck outside the Exxon Mobil building in New York after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and is impressive partially in the band's gumption in doing such a thing since these days they'd have been in Guantanamo Bay before the truck was even parked, and partially because the band sound tight as a freakin' drum despite playing a guerilla show on a truck.
But the gem is Blackfella/Whitefella, a documentary about the band's 1986 outback tour with the Warumpi Band. This was a pivotal moment for Midnight Oil, leading directly to Diesel and Dust (and even includes an early, uncertain live version of "Beds Are Burning" with rambling, extemporised verses). And watching the way that the experience of spending time in Arnham Land changes the band is fascinating, especially in watching the Sydney rock stars get a little humble and sheepish in front of Aboriginal audiences listening politely, as opposed to an RSL filled with northern beaches surfers leaping about.
And the Warumpis get the best musical moments too: the highlight is watching the band swap during a performance of the song "Blackfella Whitefella", where the Warumpis are replaced by members of Midnight Oil as the song transforms into "The Dead Heart" (watch Gordon Butcher and Rob Hirst swap over without missing a beat) – and their rough and ready performance of their classic "My Island Home" should jolt anyone only familiar with Christine Anu's smooth version.
There's basically an entire weekend's worth of stuff to listen to and binge watch, and if not all these Oils are (ahem) essential, the highlights of Overflow Tank are more than worth the sticker price.
Topics: Midnight Oil
Mature, accomplished live set from Kentucky sextet
Despite four solid albums of robust rock & roll, Cage the Elephant are best experienced live. These 21 tracks are not, however, indicative of the explosive shows that made their reputation, instead they come from a recent acoustic tour and feature a string quartet. The result is a surprisingly excellent collection, the new context bringing a refreshing sense of vulnerability to a once quite brattish band. The strings are most effective on "Too Late To Say Goodbye", while the intoxicating swagger of "Cry Baby" and "Ain't No Rest For the Wicked" is not dulled. Singer Matt Shultz's impressive emotional range caps off that rare thing: a highly satisfying live album.
Hushed folk balladry that proves unusually spacious.
With his lilting voice and delicate fingerpicking, Brisbane's Tom Cooney embraces the cosy intimacy of folk music on his first album in six years. That works to great effect on the profound title track and the Elliott Smith-esque "Sinking Feeling", while tasteful embellishment from Melbourne trio Sleep Decade, string arranger Biddy Connor and harmony singer Corrina Scanlon help leaven some of Cooney's post-relationship brooding. He may slot in neatly next to indie folkies like Iron & Wine, but Cooney's gift for clear-cut, often pastoral imagery and wide-open atmosphere makes Futureproof well worth poring over in its own right.
Singer indulges in nostalgia, reverb on fourth full-length.
Lana Del Rey has become a hugely adored miserablist thanks to a perpetually wounded voice and plainspoken poetry. Her fourth album as Lana Del Rey luxuriates in warm textures and laconic tempos that recall pre-rock-era pop, her voice given Rick Nelson levels of reverb that adds ruminative weight to even her most basic observations. Shying away from the big riffs of 2013's Ultraviolence and the glossy noise of 2015's Honeymoon, Lust for Life is almost like a fan service album, solidifying the idea of Del Rey as a trapped-in-space pop star of yore who happened to touch down in Los Angeles in the era of streaming music and sponsored afterparties.
Lust for Life recalls the gloomy pop laid down by the Walker Brothers in their mid-Sixties heyday, only with trap-era touches, allusions to modern problems and a penchant for songs that drag on just a little too long. It's dense yet spacious, and there are surprising flourishes buried within: "When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing," on which Del Rey worries about the fate of the country, buries bachata guitars in its anxious haze.
For much of the record, Del Rey sounds at her most contented when she's indulging nostalgic impulses, whether her own or borrowed. Allusions to her previous records dot the lyrics; the spacey, surprisingly touching "Heroin" is littered with references to Charles Manson and Mötley Crüe. The hiccuping "Coachella - Woodstock in My Mind" portrays being in the moment as an impossible dream, with the watercolour portraits of the distant past as an ideal to match. From it's title on down, "Tomorrow Never Came" reaches for the "Beatles-esque" tag, and it largely succeeds: Sean Ono Lennon produced the track, performed the "Across the Universe"-echoing instrumental and provides a vocal track that brings to mind his dad's shaggier outings.
Stevie Nicks drops by for the mournful "Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems," which could be a thesis statement for Del Rey's career up to this point. The flashy cameos by A$AP Rocky and Playboi Carti on the spiky "Summer Bummer" and the fever-dreamy "Groupie Love" seem to underscore this point – their verses aren't in dialogue with their host as much as they are using her as a platform for self-promotion. (At least the Weeknd sounds intrigued by the idea of being in Del Rey's orbit on the glittering, glacial title track)
The implied wink of the Del Rey-Nicks duet makes one wonder how much of the younger singer's bummer quotient is rooted in a camp impulse: Is it meant to be self-serious like Valley of the Dolls, or is she implicit in the ridiculousness, like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls? Del Rey's po-faced delivery and the lush arrangements suggest the former, but moments like the moaned "why-why-why-why-why-whyyyy" on "Tomorrow Never Came" and songs like the preening, awkwardly slang-stuffed "In My Feelings" hint ata slowly blooming desert flower of self-awareness.
The sweeping, girl-group-echoing closer "Get Free" might be a clue. A "modern manifesto," it outlines her planned move perhaps away from gloom, or at least "out of the black, [and] into the blue." Whether that "blue" is a cloudless California sky or a place defined by sadness is what she's going to figure out: "I never really noticed that I had to decide/To play someone's game or live my own life/And now I do/I wanna move," she declares on one verse. It's an optimistic ending for a singer whose career has been defined by discomfort, and for an album that, at times, can get lost in its own mythology.
Album number 10 from ever-evolving country stalwart.
The cathartic intensity that Shane Nicholson invested in his 2015 record Hell Breaks Loose – the ‘divorce album' that is arguably his finest work – meant that following it up was going to be a challenging business. Where to go after such stark personal confessions and such a creative highpoint?
The upheaval with ex-wife Kasey Chambers is now in his rear-view mirror, thus this album is more outward-looking and even humorous in lyrical sentiment. Nicholson has mostly put aside the sparse acoustic balladry (the pleasant "All I Know" being an exception) in favour of up-tempo, instrumentally busy, occasionally bombastic adult-rock. Indeed, Springsteen-ish opener "Safe" is a dead-ringer for something from Ryan Adams' latter-day 1980s-influenced albums.
Always one for a good chorus, Nicholson wheels out some unsubtle but catchy anthems with "Driving Me Mad" and "God's Own Army", yet overall there isn't quite the songwriting prowess of Hell Breaks Loose, what with the odd flat filler track ("Busted Lip") as well as the downright insipid ("Hotel Radio"). The best moments come with the pacey, plugged-in country-rock – "Song For a Sad Girl" has certain flavours of Steve Earle, while "Even If You Were the One", with its Bryan Adams feel, shows off Nicholson's undoubted melodic gifts. Despite the comedown in quality, he remains one of Australia's most sincere singer-songwriters.
Two legendary outfits offer a spicy and soulful set of covers.
If Ronald Isley's perfectly weathered voice can't bring peace to the world do we really stand a chance? The legendary singer is in fine form on this collection of covers, bashed out in four days with his guitarist brother Ernie and Santana's latest incarnation. Ernie and Santana tear through Swamp Dogg's "Total Destruction To Your Mind", while Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" is, er, grounded by a shocking rap verse namechecking LeBron James. Drummer Cindy Blackman Santana brings it home with a gospel-tinged original, reminding us that peace begins at home. Bless.
Fitzroy's own world-beating rock'n'soul man stages a winning neo-soul reinvention.
Trading the red clay rock & roll textures of Nashville excursion Blackbird (2014) for more manicured production leaning on synths and drum programming (see the sputtering electronic snicks of "Cul-de-sac"), Sultan's fourth long-player is a marked departure from his earlier blues-and-roots-oriented incarnations.
From the hard-hitting drum triggering of opener "Drover" – a self-described prequel to Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody's anthemic "From Little Things Big Things Grow" – it's clear that Sultan has distilled some fresh ideas from recent forays into urban territory, including last year's collaboration with A.B. Original ("January 26").
Produced by Jan Skubiszewski (Cat Empire) and featuring input from a slew of collaborators including Sparkadia's Alex Burnett and Julian Hamilton (the Presets), Killer's neo-soul trajectory positions Sultan alongside the likes of Saskwatch and the Cactus Channel. With its clipped, urbane guitar tones, "Killer" is a striking intersection of style and substance, while urgent, Gospel-soul entry "Magnetic" soars on an updraft of sweeping strings, and "Reaction" prosecutes an irresistible late-nite dancefloor groove. Throughout, the album's Gospel-hued choral BVs and concern with Indigenous issues chime with the work of the Black Arm Band, of which Sultan is a member (see the politically-charged "Kingdom").
Sultan himself is, as ever, a vocalist of uncommon, prodigiously soulful cool ("Fire Under Foot"). Killer is eloquent proof he has the songwriting chops to match.
Tasmanian folk-punk prodigy and band hit home run on LP three.
"When I told you that I missed you, you just stared down at the floor, and you held me like there's nothing left to hold any more," mourns Lincoln le Fevre on the enormous, devastating "Newcastle". Ouch. When the Tasmanian isn't breaking hearts, he's breaking vocal cords (specifically: yours) with his brand of folk-punk lamentations and celebrations. Come Undone invokes Ryan Adams-like songwriting, Frank Turner-like sensibility and a typically Australian no-bullshit delivery. "I should warn you I'm not built to last," sings le Fevre on opener "Ugly Enough". Don't believe a word of it.
Alt-rock veterans match angst with restrain on five-track EP.
Trent Reznor has always aspired to the artistic malleability of David Bowie, tweaking his sound and vision with each release while twisting his kaleidoscope of greys into different shades of anguish. Like the late Thin White Duke, he's made missteps (his remix EPs never "fixed" anything, and his glitchy How to Destroy Angels space-pop detour could be his Tin Machine), but also like Bowie, he's always regained his footing, funnelling his anxieties into new teeth-gnashing horrorscapes. His soundtrack work in recent years with his Nine Inch Nails partner Atticus Ross has given him an outlet to experiment outside of his nom de synth-rock, forcing new vitality into his NIN outings of late for even harsher, more potent music.
His latest, the five-song EP Add Violence, contains all the aggression, abjection and self-loathing that solidified his position as alt-rock's Original Angster but with the measured restraint of a man his age. Like Reznor's early Nine Inch Nails work, it's a mostly insular affair – only he and Ross are credited here, with two women singing backup on opener "Less Than" – and it's the inherent loneliness that makes Add Violence compelling, especially when contrasted with last year's Not the Actual Events EP, which sounded a little scattered despite guest shots from Daves Grohl and Navarro and Reznor's wife and How to Destroy Angels partner Mariqueen Maandig.
The simplicity of the duo's approach drives Add Violence from the start, as "Less Than" opens with a plinky, Depeche Mode–styled keyboard riff before Reznor's voice wrests it into a catchy, chin-down single. "Welcome oblivion," he sings at the end. "Did it fix what was wrong inside?" But since that feeling of nothingness, which Reznor has paid homage to on practically every release of his career, has never fixed anything, it becomes the third member of Nine Inch Nails on the rest of the EP.
That isolated sensation overwhelms "Not Anymore," one of the harder hitting and most self-deprecating tracks on Add Violence. "I won't forget – I know who I am," he sings. "No matter what, I know who I am/And what I'm doing this for ... " And then he screams, "Well, not anymore." It's vintage Reznor hostility, and it's all the more cutting when sandwiched between the shadowy, ominous "This Isn't the Place," which could be a soul song if presented differently, and overdriven closing track "The Background World," which opens with Reznor dejectedly scorning someone, "You left me here," before eventually building to eight minutes of an overdriven synth loop, adding more and more distortion with each repeat, recalling Nine Inch Nails' Broken EP.
The only weak moment here is "The Lovers," a blippy, meandering ballad of sorts that's sometimes too mopey for its own good – even for Reznor – as he suffers an identity crisis ("I know who I am, right?") and settles "into the arms of the lovers" before deciding, "I am free/Finally." It slows down the momentum of what is an otherwise strong declaration of anxiety, one that, if he and Ross blew it out a little more into an album, could stand with the band's best.
Animal Collective frontman pushes boundaries on solo LP.
Avey Tare (aka David Portner of Animal Collective) describes Eucalyptus as an "electroacoustic movement" intended to be listened to as a whole. The result is a sprawling, elemental soundscape that draws on the textures and sounds of the natural world. On psychedelic opener "Season High", brushed acoustic guitar and Portner's hushed vocal are painted with delightful digital bloops that eventually coalesce into a hymn-like formation. There is some clarity amid the haze ("Roamer"), and though on paper Eucalyptus sounds dense, in the deft hands of Portner it gently reveals itself to be more than just a vanity project.
L.A. outfit continue down a misguided path on third album.
Not quite the one-hit-wonders many pegged them as, Foster the People nonetheless followed up their smash hit debut Torches with Supermodel, a record that lost its predecessor's restraint while amplifying all that was annoying about the band – mainly twee lyrics and overblown whimsy. On Sacred Hearts Club that sweet spot remains misplaced as Mark Foster leads his band through a kitchen sink approach to songwriting that, while occasionally catchy, if unsubtle (the chugging chorus of "Doing It For the Money"), more often feels all over the shop – the trappy WTF departure of "Loyal Like Sid & Nancy" – or crippled by lyrical daftness, as on "I Love My Friends".
Gruelling fourth full-length from indie rock band is their sharpest yet.
"I spend all my time learning how to defeat you at your own game. It's embarrassing." So opens the fourth LP from singer-guitarist Katie Crutchfield's great indie-rock band Waxahatchee: two clear sentences mapping out an album's worth of tangled regret, helplessness, endurance and shame – driven home with burning guitars and ache and hunger in her voice. It starts off the sharpest set of songs Crutchfield has come up with, from the big-drinking, scene-causing country of "8 Ball" to the Nineties guitar churn of "Silver" to the ruggedly pretty ballad "Sparks Fly." Each song is as grueling as it is thrilling.
The return of a cult favourite rewards patience.
Japanese musician Keigo Oyamada is a musical polymath, who as Cornelius takes mostly acoustic instruments and relentlessly chops and changes them to hyperreal effect. Eleven years on from its predecessor, Sensuous, Oyamada's sixth album is another slick structure bursting with electric piano tinkles, busy percussion, and chopped-up guitars. "Sometime/Someplace" blossoms into dreamy post-rock; "Dear Future Person" multiplies stuttering, glassy keys into a dizzying, complex hum; and "In a Dream" pops like the credits to an Eighties sitcom. Soothing yet tense, the push-pull of Cornelius' wonderful world stays attractively unknowable.
Reality star completes her electronic evolution on debut.
It’s not easy being a talent show alumnus. Pigeonholed into whatever genre the TV audience has deemed you belong to, it’s a hard task in the aftermath to reinvent yourself, but Celia Pavey has made a good fist of it to date – first with last year’s strong Fingerprints EP, an understated fusion of her folky roots with subtle electronic elements, and more prominently with her starring turn on Illy’s “Paper Cuts”, effectively torching the shy ingenue auditioning for The Voice with “Scarborough Fair” and rising from those ashes as an auto-tuned starlet singing over Flume-inspired synths.
Perennial sees Pavey embrace the beat further still; there’s nothing subdued about the dubby organ chorus on “First Week”, or the calamitous, whirring sirens on “Private”, and with Andy and Thom Mak producing, it’s all reasonably tasteful, if reeking a little of artifice. Pavey’s lyrics, meanwhile, are undoubtedly hers. She’s been through a breakup and spends a good few tracks singing about it, but it takes on a schoolgirl diary naivete – “whoever said it’s better to love than to lose has obviously never loved anyone,” she wails – while the slinky beat and crisp, clipped delivery of “Lady Powers” deserve a better name.
Perennial will probably sound great live, but Pavey needn’t forget that her unvarnished voice has always been her biggest asset.
Little Big League vocalist goes direct on second solo LP.
Despite being recorded as she mourned her mother’s death, Michelle Zauner’s 2016 solo debut, Psychopomp, sidestepped self-pity as she upscaled a selection of scrappy lo-fi recordings with near-suffocating levels of glowing optimism. The second stage of grief is, evidently, confrontation, as the comfort of obfuscation is stripped away on Soft Sounds From Another Planet. Instead she takes on that same morbid muse via sweeping cinematic shots (“Till Death”), art-pop abstraction (“Machinist”) and, at best, face-to-face, as with the title-track, where, snugly comforted in sorrow, she boldly states: “that’s not the way to hurt me”.