Backstage at a Tamworth Country Music Festival show in 2005, Jimmy Barnes is shrieking like a cranky cockatoo. He grins apologetically and remarks, “It’s my warm-up routine,” before joining fellow vintage rockers Normie Rowe and Ross Wilson onstage.
That unmistakeable scream is the first thing that jumps out on Cold Chisel’s first album in 14 years, as Barnesy warms up on No Plans.
Spraying f-bombs over a blues jam circa Rising Sun, Barnes comes out swinging while the band flexes its honky-tonk.
‘In the sun, smokin a cigarette, no plans’ is as good as a statement of intent from the band who have weathered the intervening years, lost their beloved drummer, Steve Prestwich, and returned to active service revered as rock’n’roll icons, with no intentions of changing to suit turbulent times.
It’s all vintage Chisel – none of the soul trappings Barnesy is so fond of on his solo outings, no backing singers, horns or electronica. It’s simple blues-based rock coming from the same place the band did – the pub-rock circuit that spawned Billy Thorpe and AC/DC and was the breeding ground for everything that followed.
For a band like Cold Chisel the point of a new album isn’t about breaking new ground or finding new audiences – barring some Konyesque fluke of popular culture it’s about feeding their established fanbase, proving they’ve still got the cojones to rock properly and hopefully come up with a new classic – a Khe Sahn, or at very least, a Flame Trees.
Credited with all but three songs, Don Walker is a peerless songwriter whose place in the Oz-rock canon is assured with his Chisel back-catalogue, as well as the Tex Don and Charlie masterpieces and peer accolades from the likes of Paul Kelly. These songs aren’t however, his finest work. They are of a piece with the sonic ambitions of an album aimed squarely at the demographic that grew up with Cold Chisel. If the show I attended on their recent sell-out tour was any indication, that’s the middle-aged, predominately male, one-time hellraisers who could afford the ludicrously priced drinks and merchandise and crowded into
The Brisbane Ent-cent with comfortable guts tucked into their Jack Daniels t-shirts.
The first single, Everybody lampoons modern mass-media fetishes against a contagiously sleazy piano groove and some of Walker’s tightest lyrical twists.
In All for You Barnesy’s vocal chords have warmed up. Crooning ‘… and I’m young again, and it feels so good to be alive’, he’s lost the squawk and got the warble on for a sentimental ballad celebrating the mellowed temperament of the crazy kids of the Sunbury era, weaned on weed and VB, driving muscle cars into trouble with the law.
HQ454 Monroe, a co-write with Troy Cassar-Daley, whose artistry resides in making working class blokes and their toys feel special, guarantees the album will join the play-list of the trailer park boys on the hill at Bathurst. Driving rock and proto-mysoginist gems like ‘You said I had to choose between my muscle car and you my queen/ there was only one way that could ever go’ will propel this song into a drive-time radio spot.
In a self-penned, robust rocker, Barnesy finds some high vocal ground while Moss lays down a psychedelic camouflage over Mustang Sally, demonstrating that as far as advancing the evolution of music, the truth most certainly is Dead and laid to rest.
Missing A Girl is the closest stab at a Bic-anthem in the mode of Flame Trees, the love-struck hero stuck in an airport while his unrequiting paramour drops him via SMS.
Ian Moss’ only contribution, Too late, which I bet he wishes he’d had written in time for his solo outings, is a fairly flawless rock anthem that caromes in the wake of Bow River but never quite catches its contagious momentum. Moss’s amazingly intact vocal abilities and always exquisite, if heavy-handed, guitar-work were showcased on the recent tour and are an integral part of Chisel’s enduring appeal.
Meanwhile, I gotta get back on the road rampages down familiar highways and ends up in an R&B cul-de-sac while Our Old Flame is clearly the unadulterated blues music favoured by the band and The Horizon makes peace with its crazy past (again).
Departed drummer Steve Prestwich delivers a hauntingly prescient finale, one of the best songs on the album in fact, with a tidy vocal that showcases the depth of talent in this band. I got things to do is the husky declaration of a man who can clearly see the end, and sets about getting there clear-eyed and with less fuss and bother than his sentimental bandmates.