Friday, August 19, 2005

Two of 2000’s best
Electric or acoustic – rock lives, and how

Two great live albums were released in 2000 by Columbia. Both cull out material from nineties concerts. Mystery White Boy (Live 95-96) by Jeff Buckley is a masterpiece of introspective, solo vocal, rock. The Real Thing by Midnight Oil is a stunning example of scintillating acoustic, extroverted, band rock.

First, Jeff Buckley. With a voice as expressive as Billie Holiday’s or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s or Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, he was one of the HUGE talents to emerge in the nineties. His performances were highly charged and his original songs exuded a strange preoccupation with death. Bizarrely, he drowned at the age of 30, leaving behind just one finished studio album – Grace (1994). Mystery White Boy, a welcome set of live performances culled from numerous venues, is a stunner. In the several cover versions (of songs by artists as diverse as Leonard Cohen, Big Star, Nina Simone and Gershwin!) he outperforms the originals every time. His own songs, mostly from Grace, have a sharp focus and an inherent sadness, as if he somehow knew that his end was coming. Yet, they exemplify the antithesis of sentimentality, with stunning improvisations, which take one’s breath away.

There’s a co-written song on the album called “What Will You Say?” that he launches into, with his characteristically flexible voice. It has the singer wondering if his deceased parents will recognize him when he dies. He tells his mother that the world’s a much colder place than what she would remember, he asks his father if he can hear him or if he even cares. It’s certainly partly autobiographical for Jeff Buckley; his father - Tim (a truly great singer-songwriter) and he had never even met properly. Here, he makes a strange peace with his past, as his awesome voice quivering with vulnerability, squeals, screams, explodes with pain and then quietens down again. It’s spine-tingling and there are many such moments on this – an album that will be rated as one of the classic live albums one day. Indeed, there are few better examples of Rock as introspective art.

Australian band Midnight Oil achieves a similar excellence, but through a different, more outward, path. They’ve written modern-day, quintessential protest songs about oppression, poverty and the environment, often through the plight of aboriginal Australians. Their two classic albums - Diesel And Dust (1987) and Blue Sky Mining (1990) merely stand out from a very high-quality body of work.

Personally, my all-time favourite MTV Unplugged episode remains theirs. Recorded in 1993, it was an absolute ear-opener to hear a band as robust and raucous as them, go fully acoustic. As they highlighted their melodic, (com)passionate side even more than their studio work did. The songs were the same though, but stripped down to let the beauty shine through. The band played tightly, crisply, cleanly – no tricks, no studio wizardry. Lead vocalist Peter Garrett sounded like an upgraded Mick Jagger, as always. The net result was sheer class.

This album collects the band’s best unplugged performances in the nineties, including several from that amazing MTV show. Strangely, the album overall is not faithful to this concept. The first few tracks, not all live, some recent studio recordings, serve as a warm-up to what is to follow. The opener is, in fact, a newly recorded electric version of a 1968 Aussie classic – “The Real Thing”. The latter 75% of the album is breathtaking in its simplicity, power and integrity. “US Forces” is deliciously scathing, “In The Valley” (the only piano accompaniment song, and its beautiful) movingly introspective, “Warakurna” grittily conscientious…just some of the several high points in a superb, un-missable album.

Both these albums scream out loudly, if you care to listen, as to what’s wrong with Indian Rock. Our rock artists have neither the guts to explore inward truths, like Buckley does, nor the gumption to honestly challenge life around them, like Midnight Oil do. Aspiring Indian rock acts would do well to understand what the highest standards really are. And what heights rock can itself touch as a means to that expression.

Gentleman
January 2001

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