INXS – Original Sin


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.

February 2010

COLD CHISEL – Circus Animals

cold chisel circus animals

If you live in Australia and happen to be reading this, chances are you own a Cold Chisel album already. Their brand of music, largely stemming from no-nonsense pub rock, made them megastars in their home country; for the rest of the world, however, Cold Chisel’s work is far less known, although they retain a strong cult following throughout the world.

Their early work showcases three chord rock ‘n’ roll, played in a hard rock style. From early on, white reggae influences were a strong part of the Cold Chisel sound, but it their third album, ‘East’ – released in 1980 – which saw the band branching out even farther. This was their most commercial disc to date; the earlier influences were still there, but were more often fused with radio friendly pop/rock styles. While not as raw as Chisel could be, it was a near perfect album. With ‘East’, the band truly came of age.

As a reaction to the commercialism of that album, Cold Chisel’s follow up, ‘Circus Animals’ (released in April 1982; produced by Mark Opitz) was harder, occasionally angrier and often more adventurous. The anger and passion within its ten cuts is obvious right from the off, as lead single ‘You Got Nothing I Want’ tears from the speakers. Written in response to the lack of promotion ‘East’ received from their US record label, the number presents Chisel at their most brazenly angry.
Jimmy Barnes is captured in full-on rasp as he delivers slightly spiteful lines regarding the band’s position. The music has plenty of punch: while slightly more sophisticated than some of Chisel’s earlier work, it captures the essence of their rock ‘n’ roll ethic, with Don walker hammering out almost boogie-woogie piano lines underneath Ian Moss’s raucous chords. It’s from here on, though, that ‘Circus Animals’ becomes more interesting.

‘Taipan’ features one of the album’s most interesting arrangements. Prestwich’s pounding drums lend an almost tribal atmosphere, which when combined with Walker’s piano and an almost spooky vocal from Barnes, couldn’t be farther away from the pub rock which bought Chisel’s early popularity. Occasionally, the band breaks from this for more of a rock section, where naturally, Barnes lets rip vocally – and although that’s far more in keeping with the traditional Chisel sound, it sounds out of place here, especially when followed by gang vocals – again in a tribal-ish style (although the tune chosen has a touch of the Disney’s about it…). By the time Ian Moss adds a solo at the end, the listener gets a proper feel for the breadth of the band’s talent. His solo is vibrato-filled and full of anger and passion (with only a couple of moments stepping to far into overtly aggressive territory), which when backed by Walker’s heavily pounded piano chords, really helps bring the track to a superb climax.

‘Bow River’ – a number written by Moss, whom also steps up for lead vocals – has Chisel’s rock ‘n’ roll as a base. Moss’s vocal is a soulful one, a complete contrast to Barnes’s insistent and uncompromising approach. It’s particularly effective during a atmospheric intro, accompanied by Walker’s sparingly used piano chords, but it more than holds its own, even once the band hits full stride. Walker’s piano launches into pub-rock piano solos leading the band into a full-on, sweaty hard rock workout. As Moss and Barnes begin to harmonise, backed more than ably by Walker, Prestwich and a rock-solid, yet surprisingly busy bass line from Small, the listener gets to feel the full power behind Cold Chisel at their best – a sound almost unmatched by their peers.

‘Numbers Fall’ showcases Chisel in a moody, bluesy vein. Each member of the band contributes something of note. Moss’s guitar work doesn’t stretch his talents, but lays down a few pointed, vibrato filled notes here and there while Don Walker’s quasi-aggressive organ work gives a sense of volume. The rhythm section is hard, particularly Phil Small’s unshakable basslines overlaying Prestwich’s heavy thud. It’s during this number Jimmy Barnes really comes into his own; his raspy, ragged voice – like a hard rockin’ John Fogerty – ringing passion from almost every word.

‘Houndog’ brings anger back into Barnes’s performance, opting for a full on, full-volume delivery. The band counterbalance this with a very interesting arrangement. Moss’s guitar work leans towards a 60s twang full of reverb and Walker’s bar-room piano is high in the mix. For the mid section, there’s an about-face; a similar spaciousness to that of ‘Taipan’ creeps in and Moss and Barness share vocal duties as Small keeps things together with a decent bass line. When you first hear the track, it’s not something you ever expect. As the track builds to a close, the band reverts to the original musical arrangement, slowly getting more intense. Underneath the growing tension, Phil Small’s bass playing is very accomplished – he’s certainly someone who deserves far more credit for his musicianship.

For all of ‘Circus Animals’s adventurousness, it features two of the most commercial tracks in the Chisel back catalogue. ‘When The War Is Over’ and ‘Forever Now’ (both written by drummer Steve Prestwich and released as singles in Australia) are fantastic, unashamedly radio-friendly pop/rock tracks – the kind ‘East’ hinted at so often. During the ballad ‘When The War Is Over’, the listener experiences Barnes and Moss singing in great harmony – their contrasting voices working exceptionally well. Musically, the smooth simplicity of the number is the thing which makes it so unashamedly brilliant, with Walker’s piano providing some great moments. Moss’s guitar work, meanwhile, never steps out of line – his long flowing notes drifting to fade. ‘Forever Now’ shows the band’s fondness for pop/rock with a reggae slant, which coupled with a simple chorus made it an obvious choice for a single. Also here, Prestwich takes an opportunity to write himself a great drum part. It’s not great due to any flashiness; it’s it’s sparseness which is most striking. Throughout the verses, Prestwich concentrates on percussion and hi-hat, only using snare and toms for fills, saving them for impact on the chorus. While it’s the rhythm section moments which provide the best musical aspects (Small’s bass line also more than delivers), Moss’s lead solo coming at the tracks end is masterful albeit without diminishing the pop sensibilities of the track.

These tracks are so good, it’s almost possible to forget about the equally commercial ‘No Good For You’, which also comes with plenty of hit single potential. While a little lightweight musically, once again, Small’s bass playing is exemplary and the vocal harmonies throughout the chorus are among the album’s best. The AOR leanings here certainly have an influence upon the direction Barnes’s solo career would take by the late 80s. Don Walker’s ‘Wild Colonial Boy’ is one of the album’s weaker numbers, but even so features a top performance from Barnes and provides another Prestwich drumming highlight. Sadly, so much focus has been put upon these two factors, there’s very little else to back them up. There’s certainly no real chorus, and even a section which lends itself to the most obvious hard rock moment comes and goes without making too much of an impression.

The closing number, ‘Letter To Alan’ is a another Chisel tour-de-force, beginning with Barnes singing in a relatively restrained manner against Walker’s atmospheric piano work. Ian Moss then joins with some ringing guitars, while Prestwich (at least in places) favours a percussive style, similar to that of ‘Forever Now’. Moss’s soloing is busy and angular, lacking the bluesy vibrato so often heard from his work. Instead, he attacks his fretboard in an almost unrestrained way, pulling back slightly just before his fiery playing becomes in danger of careening completely out of control.

While ‘Circus Animals’ may not always have the all-round enjoyment of ‘East’ – and certainly isn’t a Cold Chisel album for first time listeners – it arguably captures the band at the peak of the powers. Like so many Aussie bands, though, it’s unlikely even at their best Cold Chisel will ever gain more than a cult following (albeit a large one) outside their home country.

[A remastered version of the album adds three bonus tracks]

January 2011

GRINSPOON – Guide To Better Living


In Europe and the US, Grinspoon have never achieved any more than cult status, and yet, in their native Australia, they’ve been hugely successful. Although Grinspoon’s debut full-length release was released in Australia in 1998, I first heard it when it received an international release the following year. I was instantly taken with their brand of post-hardcore music, especially the album’s opening number ‘Post Enebriated Anxiety’ [sic]. Although Grinspoon had enough talent of their own, I heard more than a trace of other great post-hardcore bands like Quicksand and Helmet within their music, even though the music press at that time had been quick to label them an Australian grunge band.

‘Post Enebriated Anxiety’, in many ways, is the track which best captures the early Grinspoon sound. The band throws down a pounding rhythm and angry riff, which could have easily been a Helmet number – and anyone who wants to be influenced by Page Hamilton should be given the thumbs up. If you’re looking for similar post-hardcore material, ‘Repeat’ offers plenty of slow grinding, but retains enough quirk to never sink into unnecessary sludge and ‘Sickfest’ works well coupling a simple punchy verse with a quirky riff during its intro, while it’s chorus stands out with its use of tuneful harmony vocals backing a shouty lead. It also features a guitar solo, which is almost entirely out of character, as ‘Better Guide…’ isn’t big on that kind of old-style musical showing off. ‘DCX3’ shows a slightly more fun side of the band. First off, its main riff resembles White Zombie’s ‘Super-Charger Heaven’, though I’m sure any resemblance is purely coincidental and lyrically it concerns a dead cat. It features another metal-style lead guitar solo, but it’s nowhere near as accomplished as the one featured in ‘Sickfest’. ‘Black Friday’ utilises Joe Hansen’s Helmet-influenced bass style and is another of the better examples of Grinspoon’s take on the post-hardcore movement. ‘Pressure Tested 1984’ is noticeably weaker than most of the album’s material; here, the sharp edges are a little too sharp and Phil Jamieson’s vocals wander into slightly uncomfortable territory. The second half of the song moves towards a more pleasing slow and heavy approach, but Jamieson’s vocals remain at their most extreme.

‘Bad Funk Stripe’ features the band in an uncharacteristically mellow mood, as the track winds things down to a lazy jangle, suitable for those summer days. It also features another lead guitar break, which also manages to be restrained, reaching no more than a bluesy noodle. ‘Champion’ pushes the band’s post-hardcore qualities into almost rap-metal territory without ever quite getting there, but even so, it’s a standout. ‘NBT’ and ‘More Than You Are’ have a sharpness which both bring more of a pogo element to the band’s sound, without resorting to being straight-up punk numbers and ‘Pedestrian’ also features the band at their spikiest, matching a riff-based verse with a sharp and angry chorus. The simple repetition during the chorus helps make it easily memorable, but it’s the return of the Helmet style bass work which is the track’s real draw.

It wasn’t until I’d had my international version of ‘Guide To Better Living’ for about a year, I discovered the original Aussie release not only presented the tracks in a different order, but also featured a few different songs. ‘Black Friday’ and ‘More Than You Are’ are not included on the (proper) domestic version, as they’d already been released in Australia as part of the ‘Grinspoon’ and ‘Pushing Buttons’ EPs respectively (both of which feature other non-album cuts, so they’re worth seeking out). In their place, the album features ‘Just Ace’, ‘Balding Matters’ and ‘Don’t Go Away’. Neither ‘Don’t Go Away’ or ‘Balding Matters’ are especially distinctive, but ‘Just Ace’ stands out as it doesn’t sound as mature as most of the other songs. It focuses largely on a lead bass part, joined occasionally by a fun sounding lead guitar part which instantly recalls a lot of mid-90s pop-punk stuff.

The only real downside with the Aussie version of the album is that ‘Pressure Tested 1984’ is the opening track! After being used to the international version of the album, ‘Post Enibriated Anxiety’ always felt like the perfect opening statement… For those unfamiliar with Grinspoon, ‘Pressure Tested 1984’ could be more than a little off-putting as an opening number.

If you’re thinking about buying ‘Guide to Better Living’, it’s likely the version you’ll find is the international release as (unless you’re native to Aus) it’s the most common pressing of the album. If you hear that and like it, then it’s worth looking for the original version to hear the album the way it was originally intended.

March 2010

GODSTAR – Sleeper

It’s hard not to compare the predominantly Aussie band Godstar’s full length CD ‘Sleeper’ to the mighty Lemonheads.  There are too many connections for those comparisons to be avoided.  Godstar are led by Smudge founders Tom Morgan (co-writer of some of ‘Come On Feel The Lemonheads) and Nic Dalton (sometime Lemonheads bassist).  Those Lemonheads connections are cemented further here, as chief Lemonhead Dando guests on drums, alongside Alison Galloway of ‘Alison’s Starting To Happen’ fame.  So, with all that in mind, you’ll obviously approach this album with a pre-conceived idea of what you’ll get…and you wouldn’t be wrong.

Chiming power pop guitars are much in evidence through ‘Single’, a Teenage Fanclub styled pop song; ‘Everything You Give Me Breaks’ is harder, with a slightly more interesting arrangement, almost like ‘Lick’-era Lemonheads delivered with an Aussie accent.  ‘Bad Bad Implications’ sees Alison on lead vocals and again, proves decent guitar driven pop; ‘Every Now And Again’ is acoustic, but the crashing noises at the end always make me think this is unfinished somehow.  The acoustic also leads ‘Forgotten Night’ which has a simple but pleasing 60s style electric twang as counterpart.

If you’re looking for harder edged punky style tunes, you get those too in the shape of ‘Little Bit About’ and ‘Ersatz’.  ‘Lie Down Forever’, for me, is this album’s greatest achievement, though; although still recognisable as a Morgan/Dalton composition, the jangly guitars are slightly louder, more shoegaze rock than indie pop.

If you like this kind of thing, it’ll probably never replace ‘It’s A Shame About Ray’ or ‘Come On Feel The Lemonheads’ in your affections, but it’s certainly more consistent than Dalton’s other project, Sneeze.  If you think this is for you, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

October 2007

AC/DC – Live From The Atlantic Studios

Following 1980’s multi-million selling ‘Back In Black’, Brian Johnson helped steer AC/DC to uncharted heights.  The band have headlined festivals the world over, filled arenas and held an enduring popularity.

No matter how good or how popular the band became in the 80s and beyond, the material AC/DC released in the 70s is among their very best.  On recordings like ‘High Voltage’ and ‘Let There Be Rock’, their style is a little looser and the rock ‘n’ roll ethic hasn’t yet given way to the band’s slightly more metallic tendencies explored throughout Brian Johnson’s tenure fronting the band.

The studio albums are great, but it’s on the live albums where the early AC/DC really hit home. It’s often said that 1978’s ‘If You Want Blood’ is one of the great live albums of the age – that’s a theory with which it is hard to argue and the 2CD soundtrack to the ‘Let There Be Rock: Live In Paris’ film has some cracking performances.  However, it’s ‘Live From The Atlantic Studios’ which captures the band on most consistent, lean and mean form.  The intimate setting really gives the performance spark.

Bon’s voice is strong throughout the 40-odd minutes; he’s in good spirit, chatting with the small audience between numbers. ‘Live Wire’, ‘Problem Child’ and ‘High Voltage’ set the stage and the Aussie live wire sounds really focused; Phil Rudd and Cliff Williams are impeccably strong in their understated role as rhythm section.  What really works here, though, is the volume of the guitars; ‘Live At The Atlantic Studios’ has a feeling throughout of a studio run-through and as a result, the eight numbers don’t offer much difference to the band’s recordings in terms of performance, but that bit of extra volume means these tracks stomp over many of their studio equivalents.  Solid renditions of ‘Dog Eat Dog’ and ‘Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be’ maintain the spirit well, but it’s during the second half of the set that AC/DC relax a little and the fun really begins.

An extended version of the bluesy rocker ‘The Jack’ appears here in its best rendition, largely due to having retained the original album lyrics – much preferred over the sexually themed ones, full of schoolboy humour (pun intended) used on ‘If You Want Blood’ and other live performances.  An extended arrangement allows the band to really fall into a solid blues groove, with Angus turning in a fine solo en route. The band close their set with the double rock ‘n’ roll whammy of ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ and ‘Rocker’.  Both numbers by this point had been established as crowd-pleasers, but during ‘Rocker’ especially, you can feel the sweaty atmosphere, as Angus and co tear it up.  It would have been fantastic to have been there: it’s such a great shame this set never filmed for posterity.

For those of you who have the studio albums and have loved them for many years, there’s little else to add, as you know exactly what you’re in for.  AC/DC at their most powerful, in front of a tiny audience?  If you want a snapshot of a hugely influential band at their most vital, ‘Live From The Atlantic Studios’ gives you what you need.

Bon Scott (09.07.46 – 19.02.80)

February 2010

*’Live At The Atlantic Studios’ is available as part of the AC/DC ‘Bonfire’ 5CD box set.