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
The Drums reduced to their wonderful, winsome essence.
Across three albums and nearly a decade of zippy, melancholic pop songs, US four-piece the Drums have finally whittled to one: founding songwriter and frontman, Jonny Pierce. Not that you'd notice. Long responsible for the majority of the Drums' recordings, Abysmal Thoughts is the DIY manifesto Pierce finally gets to own.
It's another reverb drenched collection of addictive guitar-synth pop, by an author now expert at couching his woes in gilded pop exteriors. (And still with fair debt to the Smiths). But there's been trouble since third record, 2014's Encyclopedia. Pierce split with his husband, as well as with co-founding bandmate Jacob Graham. Abysmal Thoughts is a document of the ensuing self-examination. "How do I say goodbye to something I love so much/This boy I cradled in my heart?" he pines in a typically wounded sigh on "If All We Share (Means Nothing)". But Pierce never mopes, instead harnessing the drama of emotional turmoil to energise his music.
Pierce's production benefits from the same focus. The dubby, synth sub-bass that burbles under opening earworm "Mirror"; a pedal steel-whine haunting "Under the Ice"; the goopy analogue synth in "Your Tenderness" – these parcels freshen the Drums' already boundless pop smarts. Abysmal Thoughts might find Pierce at the end of both his band and tether, but the result is a sweet unshackling.
Local post-punk quartet aim big, and deliver, on album three.
Sydney post-punks Mere Women say their third full-length is positioned as "an alternative view of the female experience", with consideration given to social and physical isolation, not just economic inequalities. An ambitious aim, yet boldly met by an across-the-board dynamic boost of both the band's mathy anxiousness and haunting synth surrounds. Better still, vocalist Amy Wilson wrestles free from her all-too-often companion role, and here her striking one-liners leap from the desolate, backwater scenes with a confidence and clarity that further delivers on the album’s thematic focus.
Gossip singer impresses on her debut solo LP.
"We could always play it safe/ But that's no fun," Beth Ditto teases on "We Could Run". As Gossip's enigmatic leader, Ditto emboldened the group's zigzag evolution from garage-punk to disco-pop, and that adventurous spirit remains intact on Fake Sugar. A record about love in all its gnarly forms, Ditto is overcome with desire on retro cut "Fire"; indulges obsession on Eighties torch ballad "Oh My God"; and questions her lover's gaze over the disco funk of "Do You Want Me". Fake Sugar is Ditto in all her forms: some perfect, some flawed. But that may just be the point.
Solid if more-of-the-same second outing for UK duo.
The seismic grooves of Royal Blood's debut LP set them apart in 2014, not only due to their line-up – a two-piece rock band featuring bass and drums – but because they breathed life into rock's quickly cooling corpse. But where that album benefited from their sonic limitations – thanks largely to bassist/vocalist Mike Kerr's array of effects pedals – its follow-up isn't quite so fortunate, coming off as a facsimile of that record rather than a fresh new statement. The riffs are still big ("Don't Tell"), the hooks insistent ("I Only Lie When I Love You"), but while there are a few new tricks – the keys in "Hole In Your Heart" – they're subtle at best.
Pacific Northwesterners emerge unbowed with mind-expanding triumph.
After a six-year wait for a new album with only some strategically timed social media hints to go on, Fleet Foxes have successfully created an aura for themselves. Well done, them – but it does burden them with an obligation to live up to the enigma and intrigue. What's more, in attempting a concept album partly based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald essay that gives the record its name, they are hardly making things easy for themselves.
Thankfully Robin Pecknold, he with the unassumingly angelic voice, has artistically matured in such a fascinating, worldly way since 2011's Helplessness Blues, that this record works. This is no sugar-sweet indie-folk smothered with those luscious harmonies that made them de rigueur in 2008 – this is challenging, instrumentally eclectic and not immediately accessible. Complexity and experimentation – by Fleet Foxes standards anyway – combine in a sprawling wall of sound suggestive of the smoky haze of David Crosby's early solo work, particularly the outstanding "Mearcstapa", while "Naiads, Cassadies" and "Kept Woman" show they remain capable of straightforwardly beautiful tunes.
Fleet Foxes have answered the question of how to redeem ensemble-based folk-pop in a post-Mumford world by embracing the esoteric, the risky, the lyrically abstruse – this is Pecknold's Smile, if you will. Indeed, anyone turned off by the five-piece's erstwhile unrelenting pleasantness should give this a spin.
Head Automatica duo summon the spirit of the Eighties.
Glassjaw/Head Automatica frontman Daryl Palumbo has never shied away from his Eighties influences, but never has he worn them so brazenly on his sleeve as he does in Color Film, his collaboration with fellow Head Automatica member Richard Penzone. Their debut album isn't so much a tribute to the decade as it is a time machine, placing the listener firmly in the John Hughes era of electronic drums and new romantic songwriting. The spectre of the Cure, the Smiths and Talking Heads looms large, so much so that it's hard to discern the point, beyond a couple of musos simply indulging their love of all things Eighties.
Dreamy cohesiveness of the highest order.
What is so delightfully refreshing about this London duo is the utter effortlessness of their music. Oh Wonder's brand of alt-pop is modern, beautifully crafted and often catchy as hell, but the radio-savvy hooks are delivered with little fanfare, and the songwriting seems to take its own seamlessness for granted. Perhaps it's the made-to-meld voices of Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West, or the carefully paced tracklisting that goes from earthy energy and quirky pop (think Of Monsters and Men covering Kate Miller-Heidke) to the arresting sparseness of "My Friends" and "Waste". Either way, this dreamy, polished album is a winner.
The Alabama songwriter goes wider musically but takes things more personally.
"Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know," sings Isbell on "Hope the High Road". We all know what he's talking about. In a post-Trump world it sometimes seems that all the news is bad news. But Isbell's glass is still half full: "Wherever you are, I hope the high road leads you home again."
He sounds warmer and softer than usual, perhaps because he knows about second chances. On the fast track to alcoholic oblivion as a member of Drive-By Truckers, he cleaned up and made up for lost time on 2013's Southeastern, an extraordinary collection of songs that unfolded like great short stories.
The Nashville Sound is not a solo album, but the new record with his group the 400 Unit, which means he goes wider. You can hear echoes of Ryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen (little surprise) but also Elliott Smith and R.E.M. (quite a surprise).
He's also getting more personal. His protagonists find answers in a bar ("Cumberland Gap") or a loving woman ("Tupelo") or "the fire in my little girl's eyes" ("White Man's World"). And on "If We Were Vampires" he duets with the 400 Unit's fiddle player Amanda Shires, who happens to be his wife, on a song musing on the fact that one day one of them will die and the other will be alone.
On her long-awaited second LP, the pop diva proves she’s in for the long haul.
On her debut, Pure Heroine, Lorde ridiculed pop music while glorying in it. The former Ella Yelich-O'Connor displayed an honour-roll-brat-in-detention-hall flow, a goth sense of drama and the sort of supreme over it-ness that only an actual 16-year-old can muster. Full of heart and nuanced writing, the LP was a small masterpiece and a massive hit as well. You could tell the Auckland, New Zealand, kid was in for the long haul, and after a four-year wait, her second album, Melodrama, confirms that notion.
Now 20, Lorde signals a new order straightaway, with lonely piano chords where Pure Heroine's electronic palette was. They open the single "Green Light”, a barbed message to an ex who the singer can't quite shake. The song grows into a stomping electro-acoustic thrill ride, its swarming, processed vocal chant "I want it!” recalling another precocious, hyperliterate, synth-loving auteur singer-songwriter: Kate Bush, who insisted "I want it all!” back in 1982 on "Suspended in Gaffa”. Give Lorde credit for wanting it all too – the huge vistas of electronic music alongside the human-scaled and handmade.
That's the trick here, abetted playfully by co-writer/co-producer Jack Antonoff, who brings the rock-schooled song sense he coined with fun. and honed on Taylor Swift's 1989 to Lorde's electro-pop craftiness. Using empty space to spectacular effect, the arrangements veer from stark clarity to delirium, often in a few bars. Like the finger snaps on her breakout, "Royals”, small touches loom: the dry guitar opening of "The Louvre”, with its ambient-dub atmospherics; the distant yelps and heraldic roots-reggae brass on "Sober”, a sexy midtempo jam endlessly second-guessing its own pleasure; the screeching industrial noise and f-bombs on "Hard Feelings/Loveless”; the trap beats that strafe the title track's orchestral brooding. As a pop-song production display, it's a tour de force.
Lorde's writing and fantastically intimate vocals, ranging from her witchy, unprocessed low-register warbles to all sorts of digitised masks, make it matter. She has said the album's conceit is a house party and its unfolding dramas; indeed, Pure Heroine's cool snark is now a hotter passion, in its millennial-sceptical way. It's most vivid on the rueful piano ballad "Liability”, a meditation on the loneliness of an ambitious pop drama queen.
But Melodrama's most striking moment may be the aside on "Homemade Dynamite” – a goofy new-lust paean with a Top Gun reference and a death wish – when Lorde vocalises a tiny explosion amid total silence, like a friend whispering a wordless message in your ear in a nightclub booth as chaos rages. It's emblematic of a modern pop record that prizes old-school intimacy, and lingers well after the house lights have gone up.
English band raise their voice on urgent second album.
Perhaps responding to criticism that their smooth 2015 self-titled debut was so light in places as to almost disappear in a wisp of smoke, Liverpool three-piece All We Are have turned the volume and attitude up on second album Sunny Hills. Opener "Burn it All Out" sets the tone with vaguely danceable post-punk that resurrects the spirit of early New Order and the Cure; a template that is adhered to throughout the LP with capable but rarely innovative results. It's only on epic closer "Punch" – a song Florence Welch would kill to have written – that All We Are find their own voice, opening an intriguing door to whatever may follow next.
Ninth album from enduring Californian punk rockers.
Given that this is only Rancid's third album in 14 years, it's something of a surprise to see Trouble Maker so soon after 2014's Honour Is All We Know. But that's where the surprises end. The 17 songs that comprise their ninth LP – of which eight don't even make the two-minute mark – contain all the Rancid trademarks: anthemic, heartfelt melodic punk ("Telegraph Ave"), flat-knacker venom ("All American Neighbourhood") and two-tone/ska ("Where I'm Going"). It's all quite acceptable, but as with each of their LPs this millennium nothing grabs you by the throat with the life-affirming power of their classic mid-Nineties output.
Country golden boy cheats Alzheimers with one last LP.
The rhinestone cowboy's final curtain is handmade and lovingly tended. The handful of Jimmy Webb songs, the fireside duet with Willie Nelson, a back porch demo from Roger Miller and, at last, Campbell's first studio recording of "Everybody's Talkin'" add up to finely finished business. Having joined the country TV hero as a teenager in the early Seventies, Carl Jackson's steady hand at the desk gives Adiós a warm-hearted glow and one of its best songs: "Arkansas Farmboy" is his mentor's life story, written for a voice he clearly knows like his father's. From honky tonk tears to a ragtime twist on Dylan, it's a farewell that stands tall even beside its bonus hits disc.
Fiery eighth album from Chicago punk stalwarts.
Rise Against's furiously politicised punk means there's always fodder for their meaty chops, and now's as good a time as any with a psychotic narcissist in the White House. So the muscly punk of "Mourning In Amerika", "How Many Walls" and "Welcome to the Breakdown" tackle the rampant divisive dipshittery of Trump's America, while the charging title-track ought to accompany a clip of el Presidente and his disgusting cronies distorting into nightmarish animals devouring humanity. Best, though, is "Bullshit", a fiery punk-rock torch song examining political apathy and moral hollowness in contemporary society.
Geordie bard returns with epic, history-spanning concoction.
This first post-Brexit album from Richard Dawson continues the glorious distortion of traditional folk forms and exploration of community and culture that made 2014's Nothing Important such a visionary work. Peasant is a coruscating, occasionally unhinged masterpiece using a lyrical framework based on the Early Medieval kingdom of Bernicia. Yet his ire is opaque, his social commentary glimpsed through oblique narratives. The de-tuned nylon guitar remains his weapon of choice, which when joined by children's choirs and ritualistic handclaps produces a relentless cacophony that testifies to Dawson's singular genius.