Better to die on your feet than to burn in your bed.
As I glance at the track list for Essential Oils, realizing that I’ve heard each and every one of these songs so many times before, I am tempted to drop a line or two from the Smiths’ “Paint A Vulgar Picture”. As Sony slips these songs into different sleeves, will you feel deceived by buying both? As cynical as I want to be, Essential Oils actually offers two advantages. The first is its size. 20,000 Watt R.S.L. and Flat Chat were single disc samplers, doing their best within a 79-minute maximum run time to give you the Australian band’s career highlights in non-chronological order. The former featured two songs that were to appear on a forthcoming album at the time while the latter thought a little outside of the box with its selections (“Section 5 (Bus to Bondi)” and “Written in the Heart”). Essential Oils has 36 songs, is at least two hours long, runs chronologically, and includes some awesome remastering. It stretches from the first album to the last with no curious oddities, even though this band has plenty of b-sides, covers and pulverizing live tracks to add another dimension to their run. No, this is Essential Oils, all the signposts of their various phases; progressive punk to more straightforward anti-capitalist rock, from studio tinkerers to authors of bold anthems for the indigenous, from middle-age acoustic troubadours to…wait, what happened to our future? Let’s plug back in for one last shout against the machine, one to echo throughout generations deep in the Down Under.
And even though I was such an aggressive follower of the band, I’ll spare you any moans and groans I may have about the selection here. Yeah, some of these choices feel too safe. And yes, I really think albums like Head Injuries and Red Sails in the Sunset have much more character to offer if some more daring selections were made. But like I said, we are dealing with the Essential Midnight Oil here. The more commercially successful albums get preferential treatment, which is not surprising. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and the international breakthrough Diesel and Dust get five tracks apiece (half their length!) while the latter’s follow-up Blue Sky Mining gets four tracks. Everything else varies somewhat. Seeing three tracks from Place Without a Postcard is a mild surprise, especially since one of them is “Lucky Country”, a strong album closer on par with “Sometimes”. Meanwhile their eponymous debut and 1996’s Breathe just get one song apiece. Hey, sometimes you’ve got to take the hardest line.
Is the remastering worth it? Midnight Oil fans will already know that the answer to this question is yes. The first album has always, to me, sounded like someone at Columbia just held a microphone up to the vinyl and that was their transfer. The treble frequency, especially in the guitars, overrides most everything else. Place Without a Postcard sounds like it was tracked inside of a tin can. And despite the allure of the full use of digital recording capabilities in 1990, Blue Sky Mining seemed to get quieter and quieter over the years. Playing the tracks from Essential Oils alongside their unremastered companion tracks is something to behold. Even if you think Nick Launay and Midnight Oil had the whole sound nailed on 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, you still can’t help but notice the difference. The clearer sound may even help you take notice of things you may not have pondered before, like that sweet-ass transitional guitar chord in the verse of “Blue Sky Mine” at the 1:11 mark. I took greater notice the lead guitar freak-out at the start of “King of the Mountain” as well as Peter Garrett’s delayed echo.
“Run By Night” gets the Essential ball rolling, a weird collection of the band’s giggle-inducing punk energy and the serious musical approach of the Hirst/Moginie/Rotsey collective to the instrumental passages. “Cold Cold Change” feels slow by comparison, a contrast I’ve never considered until now (the guitar solo is still boss). The press release described the Bird Noises and Species Deceases EPs as “rare”. I picked both up at a Media Play situated in the Midwestern United States in the mid-‘90s, which doesn’t make it sound too rare, does it? Bird Noises gives the collection its only instrumental with the quirk-surf number “Wedding Cake Island”. By this point, Midnight Oil were on their second bassist and on the brink of taking their studio time more seriously. “Don’t Wanna Be the One” always struck me as more of a straight up mood-setter for its album than an actual killer song, but its hard-driving nature does it more favors than it deserves. By the time the band made the countdown album, they were serious about sounding as good in the studio as possible, and the sound has aged considerably well. Nick Launay, who fell into good standing with John Lydon for The Flowers of Romance, worked his magic on 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 with meticulous mixing, panning, and making the band sound like far more mysterious than the band’s punk beginnings would suggest. Too bad he had to screw the pooch on The Church’s Seance the following year, but that’s another story. The first disc of Essential Oils wraps up the pre-“Beds Are Burning” phase of their career with two tracks from Red Sails in the Sunset that feature drummer Rob Hirst on lead vocals. Nuclear paranoia takes over from there with “Best of Both Worlds”, “Progress” and “Hercules”. Wasn’t this around the time that Peter Garrett first ran for the Australian senate under the Nuclear Disarmament Party? Art imitates political ambitions, for better or worse.
Disc two starts with the band’s biggest hit “Beds Are Burning”, and any Tom, Dick and Harry, fan or no fan, can hear the tide turning at this point. The nervy edge that drove Red Sails and Species Deceases turns into something less sprawling and more assured. This was the Midnight Oil meant for when “the eyes of the world now turn”. Their thoughtfulness never vanished, though. Almost all of Diesel and Dust was an homage to the Aboriginals and the misappropriation of their land. The minor hit “Blue Sky Mine” was in response to Wittenoom miners exposed to asbestos and finally got their day in court right around the time the song was written. “Forgotten Years” assured us that “Our sons need never be soldiers / Our daughters will never need guns”, likely as a reaction to the Francis Fukuyama school of thought that we are defined by our enemies. The “Imagine”-esque worship of Pangaean ideology on “One Country” help cast Blue Sky Mining in a positive light, paving the way for the ‘60s-triggered Earth and Sun and Moon. Featuring another Australia/New Zealand-specific topic in the form of “Truganini”, Midnight Oil threw their voice into the ‘90s one last time before being silenced by the burgeoning Seattle scene. “My Country”, one of those should-have-been hits from 1993, came back to haunt me two years later when my history teacher showed us Judgment at Nuremberg where the Nazi’s defense lawyer quotes the same sentiment as the chorus. “I know we all make mistakes”, Garrett sings on the bridge of Hirst’s original, but the shit comes down on Redneck Wonderland‘s “White Skin Black Heart”. Now the asshole must pay since “Words have a habit of not fading away”. The great contrast of Essential‘s second disc lies in the band’s late ‘90s period. Earth and Sun and Moon‘s follow-up Breathe was a no-show in most charts and radio playlists because, let’s face it, it was a tad weak when compared to Midnight Oil’s other albums. That’s not to say that it didn’t keep yours truly company when he was a friendless and dateless freshman in college. Since I was determined to figure out how to play each song on Breathe on the guitar, I soon discovered that the entire album was in a flatted key. But the great thing about being a total loser means that you have more time to detune your guitar. And as Rob Hirst mentioned in his interview with PopMatters just a few weeks ago, Breathe was one of those Midnight Oil albums where detuned guitars and no air conditioning made up for the lack of nervous energy in the final mix.
Alas, Essential Oils doesn’t give much credit to Midnight Oil’s final two studio albums. Redneck Wonderland and Capricornia flew so far under the radar that their lukewarm reception kind of makes me flinch. Redneck Wonderland was an album that you did not expect a band to make 20 years after their debut, and when they pulled it off, you might be suspicious of Midnight Oil using performance enhancers. There’s nothing quite like that 12-song tech-savvy, industrialist, bone-crunching rifle-toting kangaroo from here. “Your words got out there”—“Rifle in my hand”—everybody duck. And as far as their swan song goes, my wife was convinced that Capricornia was so radio-ready that she expected a packed house when we saw Midnight Oil in 2002 (it wasn’t). The Real Thing, an album from 2000 that was mostly acoustic concerts mixed with four new studio recordings, gets to pitch in one tune here in the form of the mono-pounding “Say Your Prayers”. But while The Real Thing was released as an import for us Yanks, the song was included on our own copies of Capricornia. Hardly any advantage there. Still the second-to-last song on Essential Oils boasts one of the band’s best choruses on “The Golden Age”, not to mention a 12-string riff good enough for a Byrds record.
Sometime when the band was touring for Earth and Sun and Moon, I read a newspaper article where Rob Hirst was quoted as saying that he hoped that album would make the band appear to be more positive and not “as dark as we’ve been portrayed”. This strikes me as strange. I was in my backyard, doing yard work and sorting things away in my garage while listening to Essential Oils on my mp3 player. Suddenly I was overcome with a feeling of contentedness. Could it be that, even in the throes of their anti-establishment pro-environment railings, Midnight Oil was a positive band? One that made you reach for your instrument and your phone (to call your congressman) at the same time? Anyone who has witnessed the band perform live can attest to the euphoria experienced in their presence. Essential Oils may not be the complete picture, but it is, in guitarist Jim Moginie’s words, “definitive”. This is the collection for anyone who doesn’t have any knowledge of the band outside of “Beds are Burning” and “Blue Sky Mine”. Midnight Oil fans already know what I’m talking about, and they’re just waiting for everyone else to catch up. Progress, people. Progress.
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// Notes from the Road
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