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Defiant CD From Aussie Band Returns

July 10, 2008

By Tony Sauro, The Record, Stockton, Calif.

Jul. 10–Midnight Oil was one of the most consistently compelling and explosive live bands of its era. Maybe ever.

The politically charged group from Sydney, Australia, delivered its considerable power and passion in uncompromising, undiluted outbursts, led by the imposing Peter Garrett. A bald, 6-foot-6 manic marionette with a stentorian voice, he persuasively punched the point home at peak volume. Every time.

The band, formed in 1971, made a few inroads in America during the late 1980s. However, its brilliant and inspiring music — anti-imperialist, anti-nuclear, anti-militarist, pro-natural resources — was just too confrontational, intellectually demanding and, well, Australian for the American marketplace.

Long-standing legends in their own land by that time, the Oils did dent the American consciousness briefly in 1988 with the unlikely success of “Beds Are Burning,” an angry and tempestuous cry of solidarity with Australia’s cruelly exploited aboriginal people that made it to MTV and the U.S. top 20:

“The time has come/To say fair’s fair/To pay the rent/To pay our share/The time has come/A fact’s a fact/It belongs to them/Let’s give it back.” Da-da-da. Wham.

That storming anthem helped propel “Diesel and Dust,” the group’s explosive eighth album, to prominence.

Now, “Diesel and Dust” has been re-released in an expanded CD/DVD that includes “Blackfella/Whitefella,” a 65-minute film documenting the Oils’ 1986 tour of Australia’s desolate wilderness, where they were appalled, saddened and driven to action by the tragic plight of the continent’s aboriginal people.

Their primitive tour of Australia’s barren western desert — no backstage passes required — inspired the songs on “Diesel and Dust,” easily among the top 10 albums of the ’80s. It still resonates with the band’s fury, disillusionment and determination, delivered through relentless rock ‘n’ roll.

The film provides sobering insight into a cruel cultural tragedy not unlike what befell many indigenous inhabitants of the North American continent.

Garrett, Rob Hirst, Jim Moginie, Martin Rotsey, Bones Hillman and Peter Gifford joined by the aboriginal band Warumpi, perform in crudely primitive, anti-rock star environments, using music to connect with what often appear to be somewhat mystified — but nevertheless joyful and appreciative — audiences in remote ramshackle settlements.

Crucially, the film provides evidence of the Oils’ hyper-intense stage persona — something their loyalists have missed since the band broke up in 2002.

The DVD only includes two “Diesel and Dust” songs — “Beds are Burning” and “The Dead Heart” — but provides compelling evidence of the inspiration for most of the landmark album’s other songs: “Warakurna,”"Dream World,”"Put Down That Weapon,”"Bull Roarer” and “Sometimes.” A bonus track, “Gunbarrel Highway,” is included.

As unlikely as it seems, the band’s grueling 1986 journey into a forbidding landscape and a condemning past achieved a major goal.

For a brief period, the Oils’ powerful, timeless music did focus international attention on this tragic and embarrassing aspect of their nation’s history — and the dehumanizing poverty and despair it generated.

Garrett, one of the most riveting rock ‘n’ roll frontmen of his generation, still is trying to resolve the situation. Now 55, he’s minister for the environment, heritage and arts in Australia’s Labour government.

U.K. and Ireland

It’s been another good year for music from the United Kingdom, where some of the most interesting and appealing albums still are being generated:

Coldplay’s new “Viva la Vida” has experienced the most commercial success, but there have been plenty of other commendable U.K. releases in 2008 from Supergrass, the Fratellis, Futureheads, the Kooks, the Kills, Richard Hawley, Ed Harcourt and Elbow, among others.

Two especially appealing albums:

–”Do You Like Rock Music?” by British Sea Power: The legacy of Joy Division lives on. Which is a good thing, when a group like British Sea Power pays such powerful homage.

Along with New York City’s Interpol, this quartet from Brighton and Kendal, England, reveals a genuine respect and channels the surging emotions and anthemic thrust of Joy Division, the Manchester, England, band that ruled in the U.K. prior to lead singer Ian Curtis’ suicide in May 1980.

Fortunately, there’s more allegorical mystery and less emotional misery in British Sea Power, whose third album — “Do You Like Rock Music?” — is its best.

They’re in full Joy Division mode on the furiously churning “Lights Out” and the powerfully propulsive “Down on the Ground.”

The anthemic “Waving Flags” and “Open the Door” evoke the chiming charge of New Order, the band formed from Joy Division’s remnants.

It’s encouraging that visionary young bands continue to draw inspiration from its still-powerful music.

–”Flock” by Bell XI: This band from Dublin, Ireland, could be the next Snow Patrol, sharing as it does a sense of solid songcraft and an ability to tap into universal emotions in a striking and memorable way. (The album originally was released in Ireland in 2005.)

Paul Noonan’s vocals are every bit as engaging and captivating as those of Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody.

Bell XI, which was singer-songwriter Damien Rice’s original band, conjures up melodies that are mostly bold, dramatic and entrancing, with lots of chiming, ringing guitars, alluring dynamics and hummable melodies.

The intense and flowing “Lamposts,” the buoyantly chiming “Natalie” and delicately lovely “Eve, the Apple of My Eye” — with its haunting melodies, stark emotions and the riveting fragility of Noonan’s voice — all could become Bell XI’s “Chasing Cars.”

That’s the powerful and touching song that finally gained Northern Ireland/Scotland’s Snow Patrol some long-overdue attention in the U.S. in 2006.

Contact Tony Sauro at (209) 546-8267 or tsauro@recordnet.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Record, Stockton, Calif.

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