Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Midnight Oil - Red Sails in the Sunset

Tomorrow (October 1st) marks the thirtieth anniversary of Red Sails in the Sunset, the fifth studio album from the Australian rock band Midnight Oil. Down under, it went to number 20 in New Zealand and number 1 in Australia. Here in the US, it spent six weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at number 177.

Side one begins with “When the Generals Talk”, which was released as the first single. It has a strong guitar and percussion mix that makes for a steady mid-tempo dance groove. The lyrics speak to those who blindly follow charismatic military leaders.

The second single was “Best of Both Worlds”, a rousing number that contrasts the reality of living in political turmoil with an “everything’s all right” media viewpoint. The music and vocals have a hard punk edge to them.

Things slow down slightly with the next track “Sleep”. The acoustic opening is a nice variant musically.

“Minutes to Midnight” refers to the Doomsday Clock that hung over the Cold War-era of the early 80’s. The lyrics oddly name-drop a famed New Zealand race horse Phar Lap and English author H.G. Wells.

The next track features a slow, anthem score. The lyrics to “Jimmy Sharman’s Boxers” contend that a famed Australian boxer from the early 20th century exploited the Aborigines that he employed in his show. At nearly seven and a half minutes in length, it is the longest cut on the record.

The side closes with “Bakerman”, a less than a minute long instrumental track. Compared what came before, this one is a light and up-beat interlude.

Side two starts with “Who Can Stand in the Way”. The use of the sharp, synth slashes throughout the piece really counter the hypnotic rhythm and vocals. They jolt the listener to attention.

“Kosciusko” refers to the highest mountain in Australia. The song features an upbeat tempo while the lyrics speak to the conflicts that filled the country’s history.

“Helps Me Helps You” features Charlie McMahon as the didgeridoo soloist. The rest of this track about materialism has a more western sound to it; it reminds me a bit of Adam and the Ants.

“Harrisburg” has a very haunting mood to it. With references to “the plant” melting down, I suspect this is a song about the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

“Bells and Horns in the Back of Beyond” has an ethereal nature, very much do to the bells and horns used on it. The backing vocals even have a distance to them. Then, halfway through, the music ignites with a bit of a surf-rock sound.

The album closer is “Shipyards of New Zealand”. Its slow, methodic beat keeps the listener focused on the singer’s quest for hope and prosperity.

I suspect that the only place here in the US that folks could hear much of Red Sails at Sunset was on college or alternative radio stations, which is a real shame. My initial exposure to the music of Midnight Oil came with the popularity of their next album, 1987’s Diesel and Dust. I think I would have been into them sooner had I heard their earlier work. Even still, I found this record interesting, full of rich compositions and thought-provoking lyrics. It is one I definitely will consider revisiting again and possibly buying for my music library at some point.

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