Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews

Midnight Oil – Essential Oils – Columbia/Legacy (2 CDs)

The first genuinely comprehensive collection from the Down Under alternative rockers.

Published on July 10, 2013

Midnight Oil – Essential Oils – Columbia/Legacy [Distr. by Sony] (2 CDs) 88725 49763 2, CD 1: 73:54, CD 2: 78:14 [4/30/13] ****:

(CD 1: Peter Garrett – vocals; Rob Hirst – drums, backing vocals; James Moginie –guitar, keyboards, strings (tracks 14-16); Martin Rotsey – guitar; Andrew James – bass, backing vocals (tracks 1-5); Peter Grifford – bass (tracks 6-18); Gisele Scales – violin (tracks 9-13); Kazufumi Ohhama – strings (tracks 14-16))

(CD 2: Gifford – bass, backing vocals (tracks 1-5); Bones Hillman – bass, backing vocals (tracks 6-18); Moginie – guitar, keys, backing vocals, string arrangements, organ (track 16), harmonium (track 16); Rotsey – guitar; Garrett – vocals, harmonica (tracks 10-12, 16); Hirst – drums, backing vocals; Warne Livesey – string arrangements, keyboards; Glad Reed – trombone (tracks 1-6); Jeremy Smith – French horn (tracks 4, 6); John Ockwell – cello (track 4); Doc Nelson – drums (track 10); Rainbow – keyboards (tracks 10-12), guitar (tracks 11-12); Barry Woods – guitar (tracks 11-12); Buddy Miller – guitar (track 13); Malcolm Burn – guitar, organ, bass (track 13); Stewart Kirwan – trumpet (track 16); Anthony Kable – trombone (track 16); Andrew Bickers – tenor saxophone (track 16))

Picture a 6’ 2” man screaming through a microphone, while convulsively dancing on stage, bald head glistening with sweat, thin cheekbones and deep set eyes lending him a frenzied look: a man not to be trifled with. Behind and beside him electric guitars, bass and drums churn out an incendiary noise and beat. He twists out lyrics peppered with political, social and cultural references, which entwine contemporary imperialism with native rights, and easily forgotten history with current military incursions. That man is Peter Garrett, the lead singer for Midnight Oil, one of Australia’s best alt/rock bands. Casual rock music listeners probably only recognize the group via 1980s hits such as the socio-political “Beds Are Burning,” about giving Australian lands back to aboriginal people. There’s a lot more to the story, though. The Oils (as they are known by fans) formed in Sydney, Australia in 1975 and broke up 27 years later in 2002. Along the way, Midnight Oil became one of the most vigorous social and political performers in the world, using music to campaign for indigenous entitlements, combat nuclear proliferation, express concern regarding American expansionism, and to rail against uranium mining. They took protest beyond lip service and along the way released 13 albums, which featured memorable, energetic alternative rock music; plus an assortment of EPs, a previous greatest hits package, and videos.

This Columbia/Legacy 2-CD set, Essential Oils, is an abundant Midnight Oil overview. The discs have a total of 36 tracks (27 are remastered), and run chronologically from the Oils’ 1978 self-titled debut to 2002’s Capricornia. There are 28 singles as well as eight other tracks specifically chosen by band members. The result is an encapsulation of the Oils’ progression, and outdoes the 1997, 18-track, single-CD compendium 20,000 Watt R.S.L.: Greatest Hits, which was plagued by jumbled sequencing and weaker sound quality than found on Essential Oils. Unfortunately, Columbia decided not to create a CD/DVD assemblage, as was done with one version of 20,000 Watt R.S.L.: Greatest Hits, so those who want to experience the Oils’ official music videos, live footage, and filmed interviews, will have to find those elsewhere. Potential buyers should also be aware that none of the songs from the Oils’ two live albums are listed, either. The only bonus is liner notes from Rolling Stone scribe and eager supporter David Fricke.

CD One (which clocks in at just less than 74 minutes) opens with the slightly punk-ish, quick-fire “Run by Night,” the sole representative of the Oils’ first record. The cut includes a striking melodic hook, an accomplished strategy Midnight Oil achieved with regularity over the course of a lengthy career. Garrett’s vocals bound between falsetto and a sturdy, baritone shout, an aural style which constantly helped accentuate his lyrics. Two pieces (“Cold Cold Change” and “Back on the Borderline”) from the Oils’ 1979 sophomore outing, Head Injuries, reveal the Oils’ ability to construct compactly arranged, heatedly played rock music. The band’s prowess comes into focus on five compositions from 1983’s 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, the first Oils LP that was issued stateside. The purposefully unconventional production displays a noticeably eccentric auditory tactic where horns, violin, punctuated rhythms and careening guitars rise and ebb, and the remastering dramatically showcases the material’s unruly panning and turbulent drum sounds. Despite persistent sonic swerving, songs such as minor single “The Power and the Passion” and the devastating “Only the Strong,” are outstandingly listenable and catchy. The CD concludes with pieces from 1984’s earnest Red Sails in the Sunset and 1985 EP, Species Deceases, which the Oils circulated to symbolize extinction and environmentalism. Other music on the EP centers on the 40th anniversary of the atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima. However, Midnight Oil was at a juncture in the mid-80s: lyrical matters were forthright and righteous, but Garrett’s words did not balance satisfactorily with the Oils’ spirited rock & roll.

Midnight Oil realized that equilibrium on their 1988 classic project, Diesel and Dust, a major international success which went platinum in America and generated a mammoth hit single with the title track. The production on Diesel and Dust promoted the Oils’ tunefulness (which was always in abundance but previously dulled by off-beat production or weighty sound), and the band burnished off its coarser edges. Five Diesel and Dust tracks start CD two (which adds up to just over 78 minutes), including the title track, the moving “The Dead Heart” and the poppy but resolute “Dreamworld.” The Oils managed a rare feat with Diesel and Dust, gaining a larger audience while also staying true to their artistic sensibilities and leftist politics, something other likeminded artists such as the Clash or Billy Bragg were not able to do. Midnight Oil headed into the ‘90s with the Blue Sky Mining record, and Garrett sang about familiar themes, with his usual fervor. While the new material was not equal to the heights demonstrated on Diesel and Dust, the effort was a commendable follow-on, particularly “Blue Sky Mine,” which deals with the subjugation of the lower working class within the perspective of oppressed mining company laborers; and the driving “Forgotten Years.” While grunge rock ruled the ‘90s alternative music universe, Midnight Oil continued to craft a distinctive brand of invigorating and dynamic music. 1993’s Earth and Sun and Moon indicated a change: tempos slowed, keyboards sometimes took front stage, and romantic sentiment surfaced, although some tunes maintained Midnight Oil’s typical approach, such as social commentary on “My Country,” highlighted by jangling guitars and keyboards, and the agitating “Truganini,” with its revolution-in-the-air chorus, “And the world won’t stand still.” As the decade wore on, Midnight Oil’s output decelerated and album sales slackened, although the music remained forceful. The rest of the second CD emphasizes the Oils’ closing work, from thickly-produced alternative rock (“White Skin Black Heart”), and tempered material (“Golden Age”) to U2-like arena rock (“Say Your Prayers”). When these final songs came out, Midnight Oil wasn’t gathering many new adherents, but the Oils still had a devoted fan base. Essential Oils is a winning compilation, an uncommon item which will appeal to long-term enthusiasts as well as anyone who wants to delve into the Oils’ oeuvre without purchasing the entire back catalog. And with 36 songs which amount to over 150 minutes of music, listeners can apply whatever time they need or want to hear the Midnight Oil legacy, traveling from period to period.

TrackList:

CD 1: Run by Night; Cold Cold Change; Back on the Borderline; Wedding Cake Island; No Time for Games; Don’t Wanna Be the One; Armistice Day; Lucky Country; Only the Strong; Short Memory; Read about It; US Forces; Power and the Passion; When the Generals Talk; Best of Both Worlds; Kosciusko; Progress; Hercules.

CD 2: Beds Are Burning; Put Down that Weapon; Dreamworld; The Dead Heart; Warakurna; Blue Sky Mine; Forgotten Years; King of the Mountain; One Country; Truganini; My Country; In the Valley; Surf’s Up Tonight; Redneck Wonderland; White Skin Black Heart; Say Your Prayers; Golden Age; Luritja Way.

—Doug Simpson




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