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Main Category: Pop Rock
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Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



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Year Of Release: 1980
Overall rating =

New Wave wearing its big Australian heart on its sleeve.

Best song: DOCTOR

Track listing: 1) On A Bus; 2) Doctor; 3) Just Keep Walking; 4) Learn To Smile; 5) Jumping; 6) In Vain; 7) Roller Skating; 8) Body Language; 9) Newsreel Babies; 10) Wishy Washy.

I like the very concept of INXS the way they began. Just a bunch of normal, music-loving dudes wanting to write and play songs of their own. Young, strong, intelligent, not afraid of grizzling tons of hard work in seedy Australian bars. Not caring much for experimentation of any sorts, although keeping their eyes open to new influences so as not to sound like yer average mid-Seventies barrom rockers, or, God forbid, Foreigner. It's a nice, clean, healthy, and even potentially fun concept.

And to be fair, on their debut album they manage to nearly pull it off, no doubt due to having most of the songs polished and rehearsed before they ever had a chance to arrive at a recording studio. Besides, this isn't just some new starry-eyed (or drunken-eyed, whichever you prefer) ragamuffian outfit blindly copying New Wave stereotypes and glossing them with radio-friendly varnish. From the very beginning, there is a purpose and a conviction to Michael Hutchence's voice that makes you want to pay attention - even if those purposes and convictions might either dwindle or get modified with time. He's got a pretty unique voice for his time... meaning there's absolutely nothing about it that would make it special, and that's exactly what makes it special. In an age populated by brawny scruffy Joe Strummers, effeminate whiny Stings, hiccupy paranoid David Byrnes, and jerky eccentric Andy Partridges, Hutchence certainly stands apart from the crowd.

As for the music, it's yer basic pop-rock, just with an exaggerated ska influence. Ska, not reggae, meaning there's very little ground for improvisation or "stretching out" of any sort - no, these boys are working fulltime in the three-minute pop song department. Don't think I'm complaining about the musicianship, though. The band rolls along as tightly jelled as possible (well, after all, there's, like, three brothers in it, so what else could you expect?). Guitars and keyboards do sound occasionally dated - particularly keyboards, with the thin wimpy Farfisa tones immediately giving away the Cars' influence - but that's "dated" in a decent way of speaking.

Lyrically, Hutchence and the boys are usually vague and ambivalent, occasionally embracing the most basic boy meets girl themes, but more often going off on various social-related tangents, none of which really make me jump up and shout "there goes a new branch of popular philosophy!". In fact, on some of the songs they almost seem to be catering to the Midnight Oil crowds, except they could never even try to reach the heights of "politicalisation" achieved by the former. But then again, who needs two socially conscious human-rights promoting bands on Australian territory? So Hutchence is playing a much more individualistic emploi than Peter Garrett; certainly there's a lot more "I" in his lyrics than "we". Of course, Peter Garrett never committed suicide either, so remember that too much "I" in your lyrics can be dangerous, little boys and girls.

The songs aren't great songs, but if you do have a wee bit of time to spare for an old Australian-only release from 1980 (see, now that's why Only Solitaire probably couldn't get too popular even if it aspired to), they might eventually win you over. With just a little bit of everything mentioned above. Every goddamn song has a hook, for Chrissake, which isn't something I could say about the following three albums. Even if I have zilch understanding of why they chose 'Just Keep Walking' as the lead-off single. Maybe because its stern martial power and anthemic chorus make it sound the most Midnight Oil-ish on the album? (And it does sound a bit like a Head Injuries outtake).

It's just that the album opener 'On A Bus' has so much more hit potential and "radio power" to it. So it's wimpier, but these guys are pretty wimpy. No matter. The opening four-note guitar riff is worth the price of admission alone, and the song does convey a slightly giddy, amusingly innocent picture of cruising through a busy city - on a bus, mind you, not in your little red Corvette or cherry cherry coupe. After lines like 'liquor market, lots of flats, 24-hour chemist, self-serve gas' you'd probably expect some fiery anti-bourgeois slogan, but what you really get is 'all these things serve me well'. Then, however, what you get is 'no one talks to anyone else, it's frightening'. And the refrain is - 'everybody's minds are blank, whoah, hypnotizing'. Needless to say, these are confused young lads, and the lyrical confusion ties in well with constant jerky jumping from "traditional" pop rhythms to bouncy ska and backwards.

The exact same approach applies to my favourite song on here. Maybe you could measure these guys' songwriting talents with a table spoon, but not based on the evidence of this song. The introductory sax riff (just as minimalistic as the guitar riff in 'On A Bus') is unforgettable, the main melody is menacing hard rock, and then the chorus goes ska, and it's all over in a two-and-a-half-minute flash and the lyrics are again confused and ambiguous and you're sort of "eh? what was that all about?" but the sax riff, man, I wish I could have written that one. Sometimes I quietly dream the very instrument must have been invited for that sort of things, except every time I do that, Miles Davis comes up and whops me on the head with the thing.

People who claim to be in love with INXS because of the deepest depths of the soul of Michael Hutchence usually like to single out 'Learn To Smile' as a major highlight. My guess is it's because it's the closest thing to a ballad on an album which otherwise lacks the tender balladry aspect altogether - in true New Wave fashion, of course. Well, I wouldn't go as far as to red-circle it, but it is quite assuredly a notable song as well. But they have extended it by means of a generic keyboard solo and... well, formally speaking, five minutes is too long, especially on an album whose best stretches are generally short, compact and straight up to the point.

If anything, sometimes they're too straight up to the point. If you thought 'Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da' was the weak link on the White Album, you'll probably be annoyed a-plenty with all the ska choruses. Especially those that act like they do not belong in the song at all but want to steal the spotlight anyway. 'Jumping', for instance, begins like this stealthily creeping jungle predator, with ominous sax growls and threatening distorted guitar rhythms and brawny, intimidating vocals, and then all of a sudden you get the same kind of chucka-chucka-chucka-chucka and a 'jumping jumping all night long jumping jumping it's up to you' chorus which might be useful if you're playing hide-and-seek but otherwise might feel totally out of place. 'Roller Skating' begins all hot and funky (yes, this is the song featuring immortal lines like 'I see a girl/She's roller skating/I don't know her/But she makes me feel like roller skating' - for a long long time, the only thing I remembered about this band), but then it's ska time all over again.

On the other hand, if you thought 'Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da' was the White Album's high point, all these ska choruses will be perfectly nice and catchy. The only really really stupid ska ditty on here, I think, is the aptly titled 'Body Language', a song released two years before the Queen composition but every bit as obnoxious in a class of its own. Fortunately, it's only two minutes. And it's still catchy in a way, just sort of dumb, even by this record's standards.

Not that this record's standards are that low. Nobody knows it exists because who the heck cares about non-hit Australian-only albums when you can restrict yourself to caring about commercially successful worldwide smashes. The boundless wisdom of the All-Music Guide only awarded it two stars out of five, and that's a pretty unencouraging incentive to let it go back into print. But I gotsta tell you, my limited experience says it's one of this band's best releases, and a fine 1980 pop album in its own rights.



Year Of Release: 1981

You know what a "spontaneous hook" is? A totally subjective, but nevertheless relevant thing worth mentioning - well, okay, I've only just decided to call it that way but I do need to have a special term for that kind of thing, especially when I'm dealing with INXS albums all the time. A spontaneous hook is a hook which is only active while you're actually hearing it, but has no staying power or memorability whatsoever. (Of course, this doesn't apply to extreme cases when a conscious effort is being made to memorize the song - I mean, heck, after a couple hundred listens even Mariah Carey records will become memorable).

Underneath The Colours is easily the best LP to demonstrate the power of spontaneous hooks I've heard so far. Every song on here becomes interesting on second or third listen, and you have no right whatsoever to doubt the compositional talents or the intelligence of the composing team. But nothing actually agrees to stick in your head, not even a tiny bit, and I know I'm not alone on that issue, either, so there just must be something strange about the record. There must be something weird. Maybe it's the lack of emotion; in fact, now that I've said it, I'm pretty sure this is the basic problem of the INXS, just as it used to be the basic problem of XTC in the Seventies. Underneath The Colours is a lot of fun while it's on - it's jumpy, bouncy, and modernistic without being too annoying in a bad Eighties way or too dependent on their influences, especially now that they have toned down the ska thing. But it's also a cold, cold, unmoving record, an exercise in soulless formalism. Or maybe it's just a kind of soul that I don't 'get'. Whatever.

With this, there's just no emotional substance to the hooks, and since you don't have a really colourful pattern to accompany the chords, there's no hope to really memorize them. That's how it looks to this particular reviewer, anyway. That said, while the album is on, it's still a gas. You just have to get past the opener, 'Stay Young', which tries to get by on the force of the atmosphere alone - a ridiculous attempt, with all those breathy whispered vocals in the background and thin wimpy isolated synthesizer bleeps instead of full sonic landscapes. Even so, there's a great guitar line almost lost in amidst all the mediocrity, which just goes to show that the INXS didn't suck at having interesting ideas, they sucked at applying them and putting them into context.

In a certain sense, one could just argue that at this particular point Hutchence's sense of romance vastly differed from the commonplace one. 'Horizons' is lyrically a love ballad, but musically just a minimalistically arranged New Wave "popper". Maybe there are even people in this world that can be moved by the way Hutchence croaks out 'I see the horizons of your love', but I wouldn't know about that anomaly. Gimme some Al Green instead, please. Or, at least, if we're talking INXS here, something bouncier and snappier like 'Big Go Go'. Now that's a good song while it's on. Raunchy, energetic, aggressive - 'watch the world GO GO, it'll spin 'til it stops... people gonna FLY OFF... when they turn it off'. But nothing remains once it's over.

Probably the best hookline on the album is the chorus to 'Fair Weather Ahead', although the song itself is rather senseless, more like a blind lyrical imitation of Jim Morrison than anything else. Who are the 'strange new creatures', are wonder, and what's their connection to fair weather? And is that hookline really good, or is it just because they repeat the chorus for so many times?

The dumbest thing of all is how everything on here sounds the same even if the songs are essentially different. There's slow moody atmospheric stuff like 'Horizons' and 'Just To Learn Again'. Or poppy upbeat stuff like 'Big Go Go'. Or even a couple of really fast rockers like 'Night Of Rebellion'. But the production sucks big time, with the same minimalistic grooves over and over again. Very few ska beats, like I said, mostly Police- and XTC-inspired New Wave pop rhythms, with a steady drumbeat and, say, a three- or four-note ringing guitar riff. And synthesizers, of course. All very tasteful, subtle even - but none of the musicians are virtuosos, and none of them can add any soul to the performances. And all of this is in major dire contrast to the nature of Hutchence's lyrics, which - with a few disrespectful exceptions like 'Fair Weather Ahead' - are surprisingly mature and evocative. Ah well, the INXS seem to share the same problem with XTC: too refined and intelligent for their own good.



Year Of Release: 1982

Like the wise man said, things are going to get much worse here before they get better. I have NO idea at all how a band that sounds so tight, so well-oiled, so energetic, could make an album SO dreadfully uninspired. There are no visible sonic advances here, maybe just a little in the production department: the synths generally become "fatter" and the guitars are far less 'wimpy', so that in general Shabooh Shoobah might give the impression that INXS have finally made that one important transition that separates an unexperienced homespun band from a full-fledged "magnimportant" band. But I'd take a severely underproduced album (like, say, pretty much every Jam album) over this piece of generic Eighties drivel any time of day.

It is well bookmarked, I give you that. 'The One Thing' jumpstarts the process with a decent enough synth riff and great juicy guitarwork, even if the vocal hooks as such are non-existent. It's no musical revelation, but at least if all the songs were just as good, I'd have more benevolent feelings. The only truly excellent song on the entire album is 'Don't Change', which sacrifices the pointless pseudo-intellectual boredom of the bulk of the record for a fast, inspiring, uplifting pop-rocker - the way Hutchence bawls out 'don't change for you, don't change a thing for me' really gets me going. Now here's a song that really shows a guy at peace with himself and basking in the happiness of realizing this. Hanging himself? You gotta be kidding!

Okay, now if only the album consisted only of the eight tracks in between 'The One Thing' and 'Don't Change', I would have personally advised Mr Hutchence to perform his act then and there and save the world from this immaculately produced bland trash. There is one isolated moment on here that managed to catch my attention, and that's the scary hard rock riff that opens 'Soul Mistake', a song that's otherwise just as forgettable as everything else. WHY does that happen when all the ingredients for a great pop album seem to be firmly in place? Beats me. Just beats me.

Take a song like 'Black And White', for instance. Listen to the percussion work, it's friggin' brilliant. Fast and meticulous 4-4 pop drumming with all kinds of precise ethnic percussion fills around the basic beat. Fluent funky basslines that could well grace any random James Brown record (well, at least any of those where the bass isn't the primary instrument). Weird synth noises instead of a guitar solo. Self-assured vocals and nice, well-written, intelligent confessional lyrics. And yet the song never strikes any chords within me. And why is that? Because the melody as such can't even be defined. There's no riffs at all, just the same rhythmic pattern over and over and over again, with the bass taking the lion's share of the work. At least some good songs thrive on repetition, magically transforming it into a haunting, mesmerizing, or entrancing groove, but these songs aren't grooves, you know. They're verse-chorus-verse-chorus, no improvisation, no spontaneous deviation from the preset scheme. And the vocal melody? Totally unassuming. The voice isn't rising or falling, and while Hutchence does hit all the right notes, he doesn't care to make any of them interesting. Bleah.

It also doesn't help that there's really nothing that stands out anywhere. The bass, the drums, the keyboards, the saxes, and the vocals are all given pretty equal functions, and not a single one of those instruments ever tries to rise above "competent". Compare this with, uh, the Police, for instance, whose songs are almost without exception (at least up to Ghost In The Machine) built upon natural competition, with the drummer, the guitarist, and the bassist striving to overshadow each other, adding layer upon layer of virtuosity and inventiveness until your head starts spinning. Here, it's almost as if every one of the band members is scared shitless of appearing "self-indulgent", and they seem to compete in how well can one particular player hide behind the backs of everyone else. The results are totally pathetic. That's the essence of 'Black And White'... and pretty much everything else.

I guess in better hands a song like 'Old World New World' could have developed its potential better, with its marginally catchy chorus and all. As for stuff like 'To Look At You', it also suffers from thorough undetermination and inadequacy. If these guys want to sound sweet and luverly, what's up with the tough nasal inflection of Hutchence's voice and jerky guitars? And if they really want to sound rough and tough, what's up with the total lack of grittiness? I'm not really sure what kind of audience they wanted to seduce with Shabooh Shoobah; it's a pretty amazing thing that the album mildly broke them out internationally and eventually even reached gold status. I mean, Hutchence doesn't even have the looks of Celine Dion!!



Year Of Release: 1984

Not even a lengthier break than usual can really help this band. Look, I'm at the end of my rope. I'd rather write a review of Britney Spears' latest - at least, in that case I'd have enough material to base my stupid pseudo-sarcastic jokes upon, but I can't even joke about this album, because it's not idiotic or primitive or dumb or whatever. I guess The Swing, true to its name, leans a little bit more towards the dance-pop side than usual, but apart from that, there's really no generalizations to be made. Even the lyrics can't be defined in one swipe... they can't be defined at all. A scrub of social comment here, a little bit of optimism there, a drop of funny metaphysical perception in a third place... nothing to get excited about.

It's still a little better than Shabooh Shoobah, because this time around at least repeated listens help somewhat - to the point that next time when you put on, say, 'Melting In The Sun', you can happily exclaim: 'Oh yeah! I've heard this song before indeed! It has that descending bass riff, and then the synths cluck in to provide a nice counterpoint!'. Then you take it off again and of course you can't remember a single thing, and it happens for an innumerable number of times. But I don't need to explain that to you if you've heard at least one INXS song from that period. It's classic INXS magic.

There's one really important song on here, 'Original Sin', which opens the album. I guess it's the first number which actually made people take a somewhat more serious look at the band than usual, even if it's no classic. But it has a really good swooping anthemic chorus, the one that goes 'dream on white boy, dream on black girl'. It's not really about the original sin, and I guess it's not really about racial equality, but the chorus still makes it seem like it is, so you could say INXS are trying out for a U2 function or something. Too bad the arrangement is so generic in its professionalism, so I can't even get excited about the funky bass and the cute funky minimalistic guitar licks, but they would get better at that later.

Counting the other tracks that "set me on fire" while I'm actually listening to the album... well, okay, the title track is probably all right. Hutchence certainly has some charm when he intones 'it's the swing, it's the swing of the pendulum!', and there's a nice combination of dark pessimistic atmosphere with the overall dance rhythm, but still not enough to elevate the song to cult status. Now that I'm listening to it, 'Dancing On The Jetty' is actually quite nice - both the main danceable riff and the little synth patterns that Andrew plays during the chorus (the "watery" rhythms - hear them? hear them? you must hear them, they're your only chance for actual salvation!) are emotionally fine, even if I'm pretty sure that once the song goes away I'll never remember them again. And howdy, there's actually a catchy synth riff down there in 'Burn For You', you know? Kinda like early Vince Clarke-dominated Depeche Mode, only combined with real guitars and real drums. In fact, it provides a great coda, where Tim Farriss' guitar chugging, coupled with that dinky riff, actually makes me wanna dance - and then a tasty keyboard flourish ends up the song. It's easily the best moment on the entire album.

Yeah, but that's about it. Oh wait, they actually end the album with another bombastic anthemic delivery, 'All The Voices', where they seem to be incorporating tribal elements into the music. It's not really all that good, but it's... okay. You know this is INXS. You know if they deliver anything that sticks in your mind, you gotta take it even if it's annoying, before others take it for you and end up digging the album more than you yourself. Did that make sense? Probably not, but I can't be blamed, I'm making an INXS review here.

Now seriously, I don't understand how the band actually managed to stay that close together if their first four albums (and that's not the end of it) were so drastically unsuccessful in the artistic sense. I guess their native country was just proud to have a New Wave-fed band that could adequately interpret the British Isles' and the United States' achievements of the past decade for their own population, regardless of their own contribution to the field. (Go Australia!) Of course, there's always the possibility of the band having fallen under a powerful spell induced by Michael so that they succumbed to his musical vision - although, judging by the level of memorability, I guess he must have been casting that spell upon the rest of the band twenty-four hours a day. Oh wait, I forgot, the band all wrote these songs. Well, fair enough - what other band would want these losers?:)



Year Of Release: 1985

Okay! Make one half-inspired debut, three shitty sequels, and you're eventually bound to get something cooking. At long last, an INXS album that's listenable all the way through, and with more memorable moments than on the three preceding records combined. Partially it has to do with the fact that they have finally found a conscious, consistent image for themselves - recasting themselves as a New Wave-inspired white funk-rock outfit. Which is probably the best decision they could ever take: the band's most positive asset is their incredible tightness, and sometimes they're able to save even an unmemorable tune by simply 'getting it on' - which, obviously, is better done from the funk-groove formula than from the pop-hook one.

Already the very first song demonstrates it perfectly - the major hit 'What You Need' doesn't hold too much staying power for me, but it's just a total wonder while it's on. The bass/guitar interplay is particularly impressive, inviting you to join in the fun and sounding tighter, liver, and more user-friendly than pretty much everything at the time. Sure, Prince was writing much better tunes, but hey, this is actually a live band playing here, nowhere near as obsessed with technophilic gadgets. An Australian band doing great in the "funk-pop" area? Unbelievable.

The title track is almost nearly as good, reminding me a little of the Talking Heads (check out Tim Farriss' diddley-diddley rhythm shuffling that echoes Dave Byrne in all its glory), with interesting signature changes around the way and Hutchence's mystical lyrics capable of actually provoking some thinking. 'Everybody's down on their knees... listen like thieves...'. It's a funny thing that Hutchence's lyrics were probably the best thing about the band's early period, yet I never cared to notice them until the music finally got better - talkin' 'bout the inevitable connection between the two sides in rock songs.

Still, my favourite two songs are jammed right in the middle, and strange enough, they're the least funky of the entire bunch; rather they remind me of something like Midnight Oil - socially conscious uplifting pop-rockers with lotsa tension. Who knows, maybe these guys were jealous of Peter Garrett overtaking them in the popularity department. Anyway, the chorus of 'Biting Bullets' is one of the few things that justifies early INXS' reasons for existence in the first place - gotta love that maniacal rhythm, that great optimistic guitar riff, and Hutchence and Co. chanting 'biting the bullets, biting the duuuuust'... It's as if with this song they were letting their hair down, finally, and injecting a dose of true rock'n'roll energy into their stagnating formula. I mean, just look at back at all those mediocre records - there's professionalism and tightness, but where's the energy? 'Biting The Bullets' is the first INXS song that truly kicks ass.

'This Time', on the other hand, doesn't kick nearly as much ass, but it's got a fantastic build-up - you know I'm a sucker for a great build-up, and it's a wonder how the song begins as a generic mid-tempo guitar rocker, than slowly throws in more and more guitar lines, adds more and more power to the vocal, and culminates in the excellent REM-like jangly chorus. 'This tiiiiiiime be the last tiiiiiiiiime when we will fight like this!'. If you're not sure why I typed in that line, I'll explain to you - it's inevitable that I will forget how the song goes eventually, and this quote will always help me refresh my memory. That's the trick, bubba. That's why reviewers keep throwing in lyrical quotes from both good and bad songs. It's like a bookmark. A flash-in-the-pan!

I still can't give the album more than its pretty squirmy rating, though. Yeah, so I did name four definite highlights, which, in my opinion, signals a mental revolution more amazing than Bob Dylan's conversion to Christianity, Tom Waits' conversion to avantgarde, Pat Boone's conversion to heavy metal, or Mark Prindle's conversion to vegetarianism. But the remaining songs are still hit and miss, and are more redeemed by moments or specific elements than any given combination of those - thus, 'One X One' has this great brass riff gloriously leading the song forward, but nothing else; 'Kiss The Dirt' has an incredibly moving Hutchence delivery in the verses, but you'd expect that soulful pleading to lead to something even more global, and it doesn't; 'Same Direction' pretends to be as energetic as 'Biting Bullets', but doesn't have the hooks; and then there's bizarre useless stuff like the "moody" instrumental 'Three Sisters', which really has no place on an INXS album. It's like they're paying tribute to Kraftwerk and the Police on this two-minute little New Wavey shuffle, but hey, did they ask 'em for that?

In short, lotsa problems still, but it's getting better all the time. Then again, as John used to put it, it couldn't get much worse, and looking back at the "boredom as art" masterpieces of Shabooh Shoobah and The Yawn, er, I mean, The Swing, I wholeheartedly agree.


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