Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Red Sails In The Sunset - Midnight Oil

My knowledge of Midnight Oil is mostly limited to the fact that they were an Australian rock band that wrote songs about political and social injustice. When I think of their work, three things immediately come to mind: their single "Bed's Are Burning", the lead singer, Peter Garrett, is now a politician and the cover art for Red Sails In The Sunset. I picked up this LP pretty much because of the artwork. I first heard of this record in the late 90's when a friends dad had a copy. I don't even think I listened to it. I just thought the cover was really striking and amazing.

Japanese artist, Tsunehisa Kimura, created the post-apocalyptic vision of Sydney Harbor - no water only craters from nuclear bombs and a giant fireball near the bridge. It's one of the coolest photomontages I've seen and it stuck with me even more because I have family in Australia. But remember, this record came out in 1984, six years before Photoshop 1.0 would ever hit the streets. In this digital age, it's easy to forget that this type of art was much more painstaking and analog to create. I tried to find some more examples of Kimura's work, but I could only find a couple old links. Check them out here and here.

So, even though I bought the record almost exclusively for the art, I had an inkling I may dig the music too. It's really a great record. After the first listen I felt it needed to sink in so I gave it another spin. The second side is especially engaging. Most of the songs run more or less together and it has a feeling similar to a Pink Floyd record in the sense that it is culminating to a certain apex. On Red Sails In The Sunset, that point is the haunting "Shipyards Of New Zealand". It starts with a creepy synth and breathy backing vocals as the main vocal floats on top until the rest of band comes in to push an ascending melodic chorus. This continues on dynamically until the brilliant ending refrain "I can't get lost / I cannot get confused / Something's misplaced / Maybe for good / And I can't get lost / I can't get confused". I couldn't find a version of the song online, so I guess you'll just need to go buy the record to experience it for yourself...

There were two other songs that stood out on the first listen that I think are worth noting. The first is "Jimmy Sharman's Boxers" a song about the exploitation of the aboriginal people of Australia to fight in a boxing show. Despite it's heavy message, the song builds into a huge moment towards the end with thecry "Why are we fighting for this?" and the music takes over.

Another song that resonated was "Kosciusko". It's a driving rock song with a great hook. It reminds me most of their future aforementioned hit "Bed's Are Burning". What really hooked me was the string section backed breakdown towards the end of the track.

Overall, Red Sails In The Sunsent is a great record and while I'll keep it at the forefront of my collection because of the artwork, I'm sure it will make it to the turntable again at some point. It's apparent an album that absolutely needs repeated listens to understand the quality of the work it contains.

Thanks for reading and keep checking back to see what I listen to next...


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Best Of Procol Harum

I first heard of Procol Harum when I was about nine or ten. My dad told me about them because they were an influence on Keith Green who was an influence on my dad. I think maybe the first song I heard by them was "Conquistador" over the grocery store PA. I'm a sucker for a sweet string section and I can't help wondering if it's because of songs like "Conquistador". Mostly I just thought is was a weird name for a band and I didn't really get into their music until my late teens. That's when I heard "A Salty Dog" for the first time. It's such a strange and beautifully haunting song. When the drums come in mid phrase in the middle of the first chorus, the music just soars off into oblivion only to be tamed again for a short time for the second verse. Then the orchestra and drums push forward while the reverb on the vocals takes over.  There are so many subtleties and dynamics that put the song is a class all it's own.

I heard once that the lyrics were inspired by a journal entry from a tallship log. I can't find any info to confirm this but I did find the following quote on

Says Gary (Brooker): 'A Salty Dog was the first time that we used orchestration. I wanted to have strings on the number and it was my first arrangement. I loved doing it. I'd met a viola player when we were on tour with the Bee Gees in Germany who were using an orchestra.  He was very supportive, almost like a music teacher. He actually put an orchestra together for us and members were all leaders of top London orchestras.  We got a very warm chamber music sound on A Salty Dog.' The song's lyrics were heavy on metaphor and reversed meanings of words, a device that Keith Reid used a lot. A good example is the captain's phrase 'All hands on deck - I think we've run afloat' instead of 'aground'. 'I don't know what it's all about', admits Gary. 'You can put your own interpretation on it. Somebody in America once wrote about the song for her university degree thesis.  She developed no less than 17 different interpretations of the song, which were all a kind of valid. I've always sung it for BJ Wilson since he died a couple of years ago, and it does seem to be about man's journey through life in some way. It's also about the group. It's a glowing piece of writing.'

I recently found a copy of The Best Of Procol Harum on vinyl. Listening to it inspired me to start this blog. I've been tweeting about all the vinyl I've been listening to lately, but I wanted to say more about the music and art of the records. The compilation has most of songs recognized as hallmarks by the band (at least prior to 1972); "A Whiter Shade Of Pale", "Conquistador (Live)", "In The Wee Small Hours Of Sixpence"and "A Salty Dog", among others.

In listening there was one track I was not quite as familiar with.  I'd seen a video of them performing "Simple Sister", but I had never listened to the studio version.  HOLY F*CK is this song amazing!  Right from the start the guitar line gets you.  It's a similar sound and chord progression to George Harrison's tour de force "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and Chicago's blistering "25 or 6 to 4", but it doesn't stay there for long.  This song is a layered masterpiece that deserves headphones turned up loud.  The genius of the song is in the second half after the breakdown.  They continue to add more and more with each cycle but it never feels wrong or over-produced - just epic!


Needless to say, I'm gonna wear out whatever grooves are left on this record! Go getcha some and check back soon to see what I listen to next.