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RECORD RACK

Burning Midnight Oil

March 06, 1988|CHRIS WILLMAN

***MIDNIGHT OIL. "Diesel and Dust." Columbia.

Much is said today in praise of America's "socially conscious" rock, with its almost uniformly wimpy, vague or uninformed pronunciations. U.S. anthem-eers John Cougar Mellencamp and Brian Setzer may venture further out on a limb than most in writing a song or two about the American Indian, but would they go so far as to sing, "It belongs to them / Let's give it back"?

Australia's Midnight Oil (which headlines the Hollywood Palladium on Wednesday) proposes just that in the peppy new single "Beds Are Burning"--"them" in reference to their homeland's aboriginal tribes, "it" in reference to the receding outback. In fact, that's what every song on "Diesel and Dust" is about, to some degree. The many specific allusions to Australian locales and events will come as no surprise to the band's American fans, who as a cult have waded through such unfamiliar geography before.

Obviously, the rapes of the land and its native people inspire Peter Garrett, the band's bald, wiry singer, to new polemic highs. Occasionally the choruses do resemble environmentalist campaign speeches, and speaking from the point of view of another race in song--as he does in "The Dead Heart"--is always a risky proposition.

Mostly, though, the repeated symbolism of empty hearts rings sad and true, with a due dose of emotion to render all that conviction palatable and all those Aussie references translatable.

Some fans might wish that the music was as angry as the lyrics, or that the band showed more aggressive residue from its punk-ish origins, instead of turning in its most neatly refined production to date. Yet perhaps it's better for now that the group wraps its regrets and spite (and Garrett's nervous vocals) in such a pretty package, full of fast, moody acoustic guitars and slip-sliding trombones.

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