Listening: Standing on the outside (Songs of Cold Chisel)

Standing on the outside (The Songs of Cold Chisel) is a bold attempt to restore some musical cool (whatever that means) to Cold Chisel, an iconic Australian band of the 70's and early 80's.

Cold Chisel featured some great performers and songwriters (Jimmy Barnes, Ian Moss and Don Walker) but massive overplaying on commercial radio and wholehearted adoration in bogan (i.e redneck/white-trash) circles has meant that they don't get their dues today among "hip" types.

I grew up in outer suburbia at the time of their success and might come back to my varied (sometimes snobby) love/hate relationship with the band another time but lets just say that my ears pricked up when I read that a bunch of Oz music notables were putting a tribute/cover album together.

Here's my take on it, track by track.

(You can listen to full versions of each song on the official website here)

Rising Sun (The Living End) - the original has a certain rockabilly quality to it but The Living End really emphasise this - perhaps over-emphasise it. When they do their rockabilly thing, you get the feeling that they only have two or three basic songs in their repertoire. It's a lively song none the less.

(I've added a YouTube video of this track at the bottom)

Standing on the outside (Dallas Crane) - you get the sense that Dallas Crane are in many ways the inheritors of the pub rock crown from Cold Chisel, it's different but the same. Singer Dave Larkin puts all the passion and scratchy-voicedness into this song that he can muster.

This is the song that I've had floating around my mind for the last few days, particularly the line "I had a friend broke through illegally, pulled a job on a small-town TAB, five grand down on his own little piece of Eden". This comes back to my appreciation of the fact that Chisel songs seem to be more grounded in real life (and not how hard it is to be a musician on tour).

Forever now (Pete Murray) - a slightly updated version that keeps the basic feeling but centers around Murray's voice. I'm less of a fan of these pretty-boy singer types than most, it's nice enough I guess but is neither far enough away or close enough to the original to really impact

No sense (Ben Lee) - sounds like more of a new song, but in a good way. I've always had some kind of respect for Ben Lee though. For some reason this sounds like it might have been a Crowded House song circa 1987. Highlights the strength of the song writing and doesn't sound like a vehicle for Lee as much as Murray's one.

Water into wine (Evermore) - A Chisel song from their comeback album (The Last Wave of Summer) that I really haven't listened to so it's interesting to examine it as a song in it's own right. Not being able to compare it to the Chisel delivery is a shame though, as while the structure of the song feels right, the delivery is a little wussy. Don't really know that much about Evermore either. Overall, it's a little soft. Nice but soft.

My Baby (Thirsty Merc) - Respectful and lively version with some funky keyboard and nice fat fuzzy guitar, vocals very Barnesesque (without the rasp). I've had an image of TM as a bit of a JJJ band, somewhat inoffensive but maybe I'll give them a go.
(I welcome the return of keyboard to rock)

Khe Sanh (Paul Kelly) - As a bit of an alternative Oz anthem, this would be a daunting task for most bands so it makes sense that it was handed over to an equally iconic Oz muso in Paul Kelly. He puts a slight bluegrass/country spin on it - which is interesting, it's hard to ever dislike a PK song really and I guess it's nice to hear the lyrics a little more clearly on this one. The lyrics still hold their power, in spite of nearly three decades of maniacal thrashing from commercial radio. This is the song (above all others) that has given Chisel their bogan associations - my image is of redfaced drunk guys with arms around shoulders half singing half shouting this one.

Bow River (Troy Cassar Daley) - Troy gives this song a distinctly (and unsurprisingly) stripped back country sound, in some ways it seems a little slow but he's made an effort to make the song his own. The rockier nature of the original makes this song suffer a little in comparison, I generally don't mind a little bit of country but it seems to lack a little passion. The use of banjo on two songs in a row distracts a little too.

Saturday Night (Grinspoon) - Grinspoon launch themselves headlong into this song with an enthusiasm that puts a smile on the face, trying to outdo Barnesy in the sing/screaming stakes but there's a slight desperation in the over-the-topness of the track which seems to miss the slightly laid back sense of cool that came from the original. The vocals behind the main lyrics just seem slightly strained, like they are the class swots desperately trying to impress teacher. Definite points for energy and balls-out cheesy guitar.

Hound Dog (You Am I) - Putting aside my You Am I issues for a moment (I get what they are doing, it's just not quite the sound for me), I'm impressed with this take on a less well known Chisel track. (Which I guess is the kind of track you would choose if you were trying to be a little cool about it all). It's true to the sound of the original but has updated the rock sound a little (mainly in stripping back some of the guitar flourishes and throwing in a little more distortion).

Listening back to the Chisel original though really emphasises the power and emotion that Barnes is able to put into his voice. One comparison that popped into my mind (a little surprisingly I might add) was Kurt Cobain. Tim Rogers by comparison sounds a little too proper and pronounced, like he learnt how to sing this song at a rock finishing school. (But as I say, Hourly Daily aside, not such a You Am I fan)

Choir Girl (Katie Noonan) - As this song started, I was cringing, it just seemed so out of whack and so much more like a vehicle for Katie Noonan's (impressive) cocktail lounge stylings. It's just her and a sparse piano backing and just at the point when I thought it was definitely going all wrong, the goosebumps kicked in. It seemed as though the rhythm and phrasing were completely out but somehow she manages to hold the notes/lyrics and/or pauses until the last possible moment before they would be wrong and make them even more powerful than the original.

For a song about a girl going in for an abortion, it makes a real difference to hear it sung by a woman and each line has added oomph and meaning. Beautiful.

You got nothing I want (Alex Lloyd) - I was a little surprised by Lloyd's version of this at first. It's an energetic country jam which kind of springs on you after you have been lulled a little by Katie Noonan's Choir Girl. At first, you just think WTF? but then you realise that this approach to what was originally a relatively shouty rock song actually works quite well. It clearly suits Lloyds voice much more than a faithful cover of the original would have and it becomes kind of fun. The instrumentation kicks along as well and really complements the vocals.

When the war is over (Something for Kate) - Twenty plus years of rock/pop history are on display right from the opening line of this version, Paul Dempsey's near whisper butts up against a very 80s "everybody sing" harmonised take on it that you just couldn't do in rock these days. (Well of course you could, it's just that noone does). This version again pays its respects to the original but creates a much thicker, rockier sound where the vocals aren't as prominent but still generate a similar level of emotion. It misses Ian Moss's soaring guitar and Don Walkers understated keyboards but hacks out its own uniqueness.

Four Walls (The Waifs) - another lesser known Chisel track, this one is again fairly true to the original. What is the frackin' obsession with banjo is one question that pops into my mind though. A little bit of a nothing track I'm afraid to say, very stripped back, the singer sounds a little tired perhaps and the plinky backing is a little distracting. I actually tend to tune out when listening to this one.

Cheap Wine (Shane Nicholson) - You often find that when someone puts a tribute album like this together, they take the opportunity to put themselves (or some friends) on amongst all of the other more impressive acts, often cherrypicking one of the bands more popular songs. This track has this feel.

Shane Nicholson's main claim to fame appears to be as a member of Kasey Chambers band and the mixture of his slightly insipid whiny vocals with the twangy country style slide guitar call out for the attention of whitebread adult oriented rock radio stations that still find the original a little too rocky.

Shipping Steel (The Flairz featuring Dave Larkin) - Another lesser known Chisel song but a good rockin truck driving one. As it begins, the guitar is promising but the vocals seem a little off - like a girl rock band but a little tamer perhaps, a little unconvincing. Dave Larkin (Dallas Crane) chimes in to strengthen up the chorus with but the contrast between his rockin vocals and the lead vocals is too much. The guitar and drums drive the song fairly well, even with it's slight tendency towards cheese.

Now because I haven't heard of these guys either I was on the verge of putting them into the above category of (possible) friends of the producer/label but I just googled them and damned if these guys aren't talented little bloody overachievers. A West Australian band consisting of 3 x 14 year olds who released their first EP in 2004. Bearing this in mind, it makes more sense now - it's not a girl on vocals, it's a teenage boy. This song is a brave experiment and it'll be interesting to see where the band goes (other songs on their MySpace page are interesting/cute). I get the feeling that this may still be a favour to the label but how can you knock the kids really.

Janelle (Augie March) - This song has been one of my favourites for a long time and I've also been an admirer of Augie March for a while now (though the sameness of recent efforts and onstage antics/sulkery have put me off a little) so I was particularly interested to hear this version.

The good news is that Augie March have done a nice job - it is perhaps a little overdone at the start, the original begins with a lonely feeling of sitting listening to the blues in a darkened bar at 1am and then builds in intensity whereas this one peaks sooner but overall the emotion is there and the song doesn't just sound like any other Augie March song. They've added bits to it, I can't explain why but a visual that I get is a gypsy caravan or perhaps the Speigeltent, something vaguely circusy anyway. Keeping the keyboard was a must and adding something accordionlike works pretty well.

Flame Trees (Sarah Blasko) - This starts well (there's something about Sarah Blasko's voice that is kind of hot) but before long you get the sense that this version is just a little too melancholy, a little too reflective. There is certainly a sense of nostalgia tinged with sadness in the original (which is why it is one of the most beautiful and popular non-rockin Chisel songs) but also a sense of movement, which just doesn't quite come across in the Blasko version. By the time it does ratchet the pace up a notch, it's too late.

Here's The Living End version of Rising Sun