Van Diemen’s Land
ONE of the biggest surprises on the domestic music front last year was the belated debut appearance in the album charts of Russell Morris, 44 years after his hit single The Real
Thing. Reinforcing the most unexpected resurrection of a 1960s Australian pop idol since John Farnham’s mid-80s comeback with Whispering Jack, success came with a blues-accented release that thematically had more in common with folk. Formulating a follow-up to the platinum-selling, ARIA award-winning Sharkmouth was a no-brainer for the retirement-aged singer-songwriter. Adopting the mixture as before, the Hall of Fame inductee has produced another character-driven album that takes lyrical inspiration from the front and back pages of the Australian history book, while musically leaning on American blues and assistance from the top tier of the Aussie roots music ranks. Taking a leaf out of his Sharkmouth songbook, Morris garners inspiration from a similar quota of characters, stories and events from Australia’s glorious and inglorious past. On the title track he contemplates huskily the bleak future that awaits convicts during 19thcentury sea voyages to Tasmania, to the backdrop of a Led Zep-like blues-rock groove propelled by Midnight Oil’s drummer Rob Hirst. To the accompaniment of Vika and Linda Bull’s soaring vocals and some exemplary guitar work from Chain’s Phil Manning, Morris oozes a smoky New Orleans feel in the swampy Sweetest Thing while observing the “bittersweet days gone by” in Queensland’s sugar cane industry. The pipes are equally weathered when he tells the story of five Australian escapees from the Sandakan death marches in a track,
Sandakan, that’s stripped back to guitar riff and trombone fills. In another ode drawing on World War II heroics, Dexter’s Big Tin Can, Daddy Cool’s Ross Hannaford trades guitar lines with Australia’s Got Talent victor Joe Robinson. The double bass of the Living End’s Scott Owen injects gentle swing to a slow burning blues ballad, Breaker Morant, dedicated to the Boer War scapegoat. Rick Springfield plays slide guitar over a classic rock ‘n’ roll boogie groove in a story centred on the dramatic culmination of an 1894 shearers’ strike, Burning Rodney. Cello helps underpin another rebellion yarn, Eureka (also the shipwreck classic Loch Ard Gorge). The gold rush theme is reprised in a rollicking sign-off, Bendigo Rock. A sizzling sax solo from Jo Jo Zep’s Joe Camilleri boosts
Birdsville, one of the set’s few nondescript cuts. Morris is in great voice from whoa to go, adapting deftly to the nuances of each song. While his well-crafted words are admirably enunciated, it’s puzzling the veteran feels compelled to sing evocative songs that are so deeply entrenched in Australian culture in an overt American accent. Even allowing for the fact blues is a quintessential US genre, it’s an anomaly that detracts from an otherwise outstanding sequel.