After the release of ‘Kick’ in 1987, I became a massive INXS fan. It was soon obvious I had to hear the rest of their albums. ‘Kick’s immediate predecessor ‘Listen Like Thieves’ offered me more of the same, but their earlier albums took a little more time to get into; although they still contained lots of great songs, the overall sound had more in common with new wave than the stadium rock which gained INXS their international stardom.
When vocalist Michael Hutchence died in 1997, I figured that would be the end of INXS, since they’d not only lost a distinctive vocalist but also a great frontman. They carried on, however, firstly with Terence Trent D’arby – a union which (I’m glad) amounted to nothing. Then came the news that ex-Noiseworks vocalist Jon Stevens would be touring with INXS as vocalist. Coming from another respected Aussie rock band, this was a move which seemed to make sense. Sadly, Stevens only held the position briefly and INXS found themselves without a vocalist once again.
In 2004, they held auditions for a full time replacement via a TV talent show. I despise TV talent shows, and the fact that a band I loved were about to whore themselves in such a way to find a new frontman reeked of desperation. However, the band hooked up with the winner JD Fortune and recorded an album, ‘Switch’ (released in 2005). Against the odds, the album was solid – if never destined to be a classic – but INXS’s glory days seemed to be over. In the UK at least, ‘Switch’ went straight into the bargain bins.
As half a decade passed, seemingly without a word or any new material, I thought I’d heard the last of INXS. And then, in November 2009 Atco Records released ‘Original Sin’ – an album of INXS classics re-imagined and re-recorded with guest vocalists. Since the project featured a couple of performers I enjoy, I’d hoped the results would be interesting (as per Ray Davies’s ‘See My Friends’), but sadly, you’d have to be an absolute die-hard fan to want to spend money on this.
A newly recorded track ‘Drum Opera’ does exactly what it says on the tin, providing a couple of minutes of percussion, before trip-hop king Tricky arrives to put his stamp on ‘Mediate’. What ensues is a dull performance over an electronic dance loop which, in places, is completely uninspired. As the track progresses, the dance loop becomes more energised, eventually morphing something you might want to dance to, but Tricky’s performance continues to hover somewhere between flat and flat-out grating. I’d hoped that Rob Thomas would perk things up with his rendition of ‘Original Sin’ (one of INXS best “pop” tunes), since the sometime Matchbox Twenty frontman has a great voice. Instead of tackling in it in a respectable Matchbox Twenty manner, someone decided that getting Rob to team up with DJ Yaldiys would be a better plan. This results in another dance track – and somehow, it ends up worse than Tricky. It’s awful, uninspired rubbish which not even Thomas can save – and when you think it couldn’t get any worse, he’s joined by a woman speaking in French. (I’m not being xenophobic; this just seems to be a rather pointless exercise).
Next up is the classic ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ – which not only is one of the absolutely classic INXS tunes, but possibly one of the best songs written by anybody. It’s re-imagined here by French singer, actress and author Mylene Farmer, who, naturally, sings a good proportion of it in French. For the epic sounding choruses (which have been given a subtle-as-a-brick string backing), she’s joined by Ben Harper. Normally, I’m a fan, but Ben over-sings and wails his lines; his attempts at breathing life into this absolute mess are almost laughable. Nikka Costa’s reading of ‘Kick’ is unrecognisable; the punchy arrangement of the original is replaced by a mid-pace, heavy on keyboards and drums – over which Costa stetches her vocal. He voice isn’t unpleasant, but all the same, the end result isn’t spectacular. If you’re a firm believer in artists making covers their own, then Costa is likely to present one of ‘Original Sin’s standout tracks, even if it lacks the spark of the original version.
Train’s Pat Monahan tries his absolute best with ‘Beautiful Girl’, and yet, his best still doesn’t seem quite good enough. The musical arrangement features an impeccably played acoustic guitar, accompanied by sparingly used piano, which is joined in turn by other keyboards and electric guitar flourishes. By the time Jon Farriss’s drum kit kicks in, Monahan’s breathy vocals sound very comfortable. This version dispenses with the programmed drum elements from the INXS original, but that’s the only real improvement, since it also loses Kirk Pengilly’s emotive sax work and adds a big rock finish which the song never really needed. The original version of ‘New Sensation’ is an eighties classic – its choppy guitars still sound great after so many years. The version recorded here with model/singer Deborah De Corral is reinterpreted as an acoustic stomp. Such an arrangement, with its slight country twang manages to be sympathetic to De Corral’s vocal style and, for once, the band hasn’t wrecked a great tune. [INXS appeared previously on Australian television with former Baby Animals vocalist Suze DeMarchi performing ‘New Sensation’ with the same arrangement. Video clip featured below.]
Aussie singer/songwriter Dan Sultan takes the helm for ‘Just Keep Walking’ and while his husky delivery suits the song, the music is a little muddled. A reggae-ish lilt bolstered by a horn section which sounds like a marching band isn’t especially effective. The whole package almost works, but feels a little claustrophobic. Similarly, Eskimo Joe’s Kav Temperley’s take on ‘To Look At You’ almost hits the mark. With a strong vocal delivery, he shows signs of understanding what made Hutch a great singer, even if he doesn’t sound like him.
The closing numbers feature INXS recreating their old tunes without the help of guest performers. This makes for better listening, though still doesn’t offer any improvement over the original recordings. Kirk Pengilly and Andrew Farriss take the stadium classic ‘Don’t Change’ and reduce it to a passionless, semi-acoustic trudge, absolutely lacking any of the power or passion of the original 1983 recording. However, if it’s power and passion you’re after, look no further than JD Fortune’s treatment of ‘The Stairs’. The original rock/pop arrangement of the INXS original is beefed up considerably with strings, an extremely loud drum kit and a vocalist hell bent on getting absolute “rock star” posturing from every note. It’s stupidly overblown, yet somehow it works. He gives a similar performance on ‘Love Is What I Say’ [an Australian iTunes bonus track], but clearly his overwrought theatrics can’t stretch to a second track without sounding forced.
Although a couple of these tracks are okay, based on the last couple of numbers, the band would have been better off issuing a whole album of re-recorded INXS classics fronted by JD Fortune. But even then, you still wouldn’t choose them over the original recordings – not in a million years. INXS have been struggling as a band since the death of Michael Hutchence. ‘Original Sin’ is the work of a still struggling band – maybe they ought to have thrown in the towel in 1997.
Watch INXS with Suze DeMarchi here.