Russell Baillie

Russell Baillie is the Herald’s entertainment editor

Outback tracks: The Great Australian Songbook

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Outer book cover of The Great Australian Songbook painted by Rolf Harris. Photo / Supplied
Outer book cover of The Great Australian Songbook painted by Rolf Harris. Photo / Supplied

Cold Chisel's reunion show at Vector tonight reminds of the days when the transtasman musical trade was a little fairer. In the 70s and 80s, we sent our best songwriters and bands to an industry where they could earn a crust. In return, first-division Oz rock acts like Chisel kept up a live presence here. These days, no so much. The traffic is predominantly east to west.

And now with The Great Australian Songbook, which features a classic Chisel track (Khe Sanh) among many others, here's proof that it's not just our musical talent trying it on in the Lucky Country - "our" marketing talent is too.

This compilation, available as both a simple double CD and a lavishly illustrated book of lyrics, follows two volumes of The Great New Zealand Songbook from Auckland music marketing wiz Murray Thom.

He and co-producer/art director Tim Harper have assembled 40 Aussie tracks under "Last Century" and "This Century" headings, while inviting the composers or performers to add handwritten lyrics, and their own original artwork.

That all comes with cover art by Rolf Harris (also breaking out the wobbleboard for a 20-second intro of Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport). He's reinterpreted a Sydney Nolan painting of Ned Kelly. Not a particularly original idea that - Paul Kelly's Wanted Man album did it back in 1994.

But inside, the book is eye-catching and occasionally intriguing. There's some nice touches like Midnight Oil drummer Rob Hirst's Aboriginal phrase book from the band's outback adventures. And it has some curious ones too - the lyrics of blind singer-songwriter Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu's recent hit Djarimirri are rendered in Braille, which effectively mutes this collection's only indigenous voice. Among the other scribblings are much proof that hit songs don't always come with lyrical depth. And the artwork's faux-scrapbook collages can do some odd things - the photos of Powderfinger (My Happiness) render the band's guitarists ambidextrous with flipped photos.

Putting aside the packaging, musically The Great Australian Songbook doesn't quite live up to the first adjective of its title. With the earliest song here being The Easybeats' Friday on My Mind and omissions such as the Seekers, Slim Dusty, AC/DC, the Bee Gees and more, the old testament part tells a fairly selective story. And one which sure has a thing for hilariously overdressed 80s productions like John Farnham's You're the Voice, Mondo Rock's Come Said the Boy, INXS's Need You Tonight and Icehouse's Great Southern Land.

Yes, Men at Work's Down Under is present and correct, with equally predictable offerings from Australian Crawl (Reckless), and Hunters and Collectors (Throw Your Arms Around Me, here in the ponderous 1990 kitchen-sink production of the perennial).

So far as "This Century" goes ... well, it does show the enduring power of Kylie - as well as 2001's Can't Get you Out of My Head, she's also on the "Last Century" disc, care of her Nick Cave murder ballad duet Where the Wild Roses Grow. And yes, by getting outsider Cave in on this mainstream collection, that song, which originally killed one bird with one stone, now kills two.

The new testament half of TGAS rocks harder than its older half, with Jet's Are You Gonna Be My Girl nicely bookending proceedings with Wolfmother's equally feminist Mother.

But while it's up to date by getting Goyte's Kimbra-assisted recent hit Somebody I Used to Know in there, the "This Century" tracks really are a guess-you-had-to-be-there experience - and if you weren't, it really sounds like you haven't missed much.

Stars: 3/5
Verdict: It's the Quade Cooper of compliations - born here but plays much better over there

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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