Essential Oils

Midnight Oil

Columbia/Legacy, 2013

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


Never a band to shy away from a political cause, Midnight Oil rarely achieved the sort of acclaim they deserved in the States. Aside from the hit "Beds Are Burning," most people would be hard-pressed to name another album or well-known song by the Austrailian quintet.

This is a shame, because as Essential Oils makes clear, the band's 25-year career is ripe for rediscovery for those outside of the land down under. Midnight Oil was proud champions of their homeland and passionate supporters of leftist politics, both there and around the world, and these stances endeared them to fans and earned the scorn of the Austrailian press establishment, who kept coming up with reasons why the band would never make it.

After building up a major following in Sydney, and later the entire continent, Midnight Oil branched out to England and America, broadening their political scope to tell stories that, while rooted in Australia, affected the world. All of this was set to catchy hard rock with a post-punk twist, similar to what U2 was originally doing in the early ‘80s but with a dash of surf and arena rock.

As the two-disc Essential set makes clear, the band not only stayed true to its political commitment but never wavered in the quality of their music, even as they tried new sounds and instruments. What is admirable about the band is how they put their money where their mouth was; singer Peter Garrett ran for the Austrailian Senate in the middle of the band's ‘80s career and ran again in 2002 when the band broke up. The band's many causes included speaking on behalf of the native Austrailian people (surely resonant in the States), miners working in deplorable conditions (ditto), inflaming racial passions for political gain (duh), and of coursee the legendary 1990 show in front of the Exxon building in New York that drew more than 10,000 people. You may remember that was the year of the Valdez spill; the band's aim was to draw attention to environmental concerns, not necessarily to place blame.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Again, none of this would mean much if the music hadn't been worthwhile, and much of it is, combining the best elements of The Clash, New Wave and early alternative rock. "Back On The Borderline" is the band's first great song, catchy with a great chorus and a dash of surf-sounding guitar, while "Power And Yhe Passion," the sarcastic "When The Generals Talk" and "Hercules" (the latter is only available on a rare EP) remain early career highlights.

The first disc is devoted to this early stage in their career, from the raw energy of "Run By Night" up through "Best Of Both Worlds," ending just as the band was about to break through to a worldwide audience. Disc two covers this period, starting with the major hit "Beds Are Burning," which not only addresses a sensitive topic (reparations for native peoples) but sets it to a killer bassline and a moving, singalong chorus. The rest of the songs from Diesel And Dust don't quite measure up, but those from Blue Sky Mining (especially the title song) are better.

"Truganini" is fascinating, a piece led by bass, harmonica and Garrett's strident vocals, while "Redneck Wonderland" is a late career highlight that showed Midnight Oil going the industrial route, which suits the lyrics nicely. The disc closes with three songs from Capricornia, which are fine but hardly up to the excitement level of what has come before. Perhaps sensing they had said all they needed to say, Midnight Oil broke up and Garrett went into politics.

At 36 tracks, Essential Oils is perhaps too generous; condensing the band's admittedly long career to one well-edited CD may have allowed casual fans an easier introduction, even if this does present a balanced, chronological overview of all of Midnight Oil's albums and Austrailian-only EPs. And yes, the lyrics can be preachy and the music uninspired at times – especially around the middle of the first disc – but at their best, Midnight Oil is a band that deserves to be heard, and this collection captures their finest moments nicely.

Rating: B

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