BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Nowadays Midnight Oil is often lumped in with such Reagan Years stalwarts as Wang Chung, the Fixx and Mr. Misters as 80s relics, good for nostalgic VH1 retrospectives featuring one-hit wonders and little else. This is, of course, complete bullshit, as the new two-disk set Essential Oils makes clear. Putting aside the fact that the veteran Australian quintet began in the 70s and kept going until 2002, the music holds up far better than most rock of the era in which it became popular. As songwriters, the members’ wily intelligence in covering Australian political and social causes to which the entire world could relate and ability to marry those sentiments to catchy melodies serves their music in good stead. But it’s the band’s refusal to indulge in pop romance clichés, disinterest in following trends and gift for rocking righteously that keeps even its earliest songs sounding fresh 30+ years later.
Given that the music was issued before the Oils’ international success in 1987 with “Beds Are Burning,” the first disk likely offers the biggest revelations to casual fans. The melodic anthems “Best of Both Worlds,” “Read About It” and “Back On the Borderline” caused a stir on college and underground radio stations, and it’s easy to hear why in their straightforward catchiness. But there are plenty of other gems to be mined here: the muscle-bound rage of “Only the Strong” (an impossibly thrilling song onstage), the gentle melodicism of the instrumental “Wedding Cake Island,” the subtle psychedelia of “Hercules.” It’s also interesting to hear the band experimenting with the sounds of the day without smothering its inherent personality, adding an electronic percussion thwack to “Power and the Passion,” lacing the otherwise folk-rocking “US Forces” with tinkling synth fills and indulging in quirky electro-funk on “When the Generals Talk.” But what makes the first disk most exciting is the first cut – “Run By Night,” taken from the self-titled first LP, lays out the Oils’ brash, catchy vision with near-perfect clarity. This is a band that knew what it was about from the get-go.
Disk two leads off with The Hit. “Beds Are Burning” accomplished the impossible – taking the treatment of Australian Aboriginals and turning it into an international anthem and a brilliant single. Indeed, the first half is dominated by Diesel and Dust, the album from which “Beds” came, and its nearly-as-popular follow-up Blue Sky Mining. The band came under some criticism at the time, especially for the latter album, for being sell-outs, diluting its messages with easy hooks and melodies written for stadium sing-alongs. (Like the Clash didn’t?) But the songs included here – the fist-pumping “King of the Mountain,” “Forgotten Years” and “Blue Sky Mine,” the brooding “Put Down That Weapon” and “The Dead Heart,” the steady-rolling “Warakurna,” the elegant, lovely “One Country,” the blazing “Dreamworld” – don’t support such carping, despite the lingering ‘80s drums sounds. Uneven songwriting and meandering inspiration set in afterwards, but the disk does a good job of picking the highlights from the Oils’ waning years: “Truganini,” which somehow gets a catchy chorus out of the tongue-twisting name of Tasmania’s last full-blood Aboriginal; “Redneck Wonderland,” which adds an industrial electronic sheen that, miraculously, works; “Luritja Way,” which mines the band’s simmering folk rock side to good effect; “My Country,” which skillfully mixes moody atmospherics, memorable melody and resigned sarcasm; “Golden Age,” which resurrects an oft-buried penchant for jangle pop.
Despite a body of work equal to more celebrated (i.e. classic rock-calcified) acts like U2, Midnight Oil often gets overlooked. Essential Oils is a perfect way to rediscover one of the unsung greats.
DOWNLOAD: “Only the Strong,” “Run By Night,” “Read About It,” “Beds Are Burning,” “Blue Sky Mine,” “My Country”