Van Diemen’s Land

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music Reviews - Tony Hil­lier

Rus­sell Mor­ris


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.

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