For all its studio efficiency and tight-knit personal cohesion, Australia’s INXS often sounded like a group of tourists unable to decide between a visit to the zoo or a late lunch. Although singer Michael Hutchence — who died under bizarre conditions alone in a Sydney hotel room in November 1997 — always wrote the bulk of the material with keyboardist Andrew Farriss (one of three brothers in the band), they rarely seemed to be in stylistic synch with the band. As the world’s only Jagger- Pop-Bono-Morrison hybrid, Hutchence fancied himself an old- fashioned rock idol, a fringey stadium shaman and a trendy young groover pushing the envelope. The others, meanwhile, sometimes rose to the occasion but were more often content to churn out rote rock-funk. INXS could lurch to life with sudden bursts of stylistic ambition; when it did, the resulting records could be exciting and original. But a needle drop through the sixteen-track Greatest Hits reveals precious few such moments: a dismaying majority of the band’s moneymakers hit their marks and nothing more.
It took these six Australians (three of them brothers) from Sydney a long time to develop into something America wanted to hear; INXS is dull rock that sounds like a less musical Joe Jackson or a no-soul Graham Parker. Underneath the Colours — like its predecessor, issued in the US only after the band had become successful — has much better audio quality (although no one bothered to integrate the drums into the mix) and shifts the focus among keyboards, sax and guitar in a vain effort to vitalize the underwhelming songs.
Shabooh Shoobah, with good loud production by Mark Opitz (and one Farriss brother mysteriously missing from the credits), was the first INXS album to be released in the US and UK. Despite major strides in several areas, on the whole it’s still not a happening record. A few outstanding numbers do display growth in personality and style: “The One Thing” sews a bunch of riffs together into an energetic, dense fabric, while “Soul Mistake” generates a foreboding mood and “Don’t Change” gets up a good head of textured rock steam.
Following an Australian label change, the group’s previous record company issued Inxsive, a compilation that includes outtakes and obscurities as well as hits.
Four songs from Shabooh Shoobah (three extended remixes plus a wholly new version of a fourth) comprise the club-oriented Dekadance EP. If not specifically better, the six-minute edit of “The One Thing” is certainly longer.
The Swing proved to be the first INXS LP of any real significance, moving the group clearly into the mainstream of modern dance-rock with the inclusion of the suavely insistent “Original Sin,” produced by Nile Rodgers. (The record was otherwise done under the direction of Nick Launay.) “Burn for You” is another highlight, using a female backing chorus to affect an amusing resemblance to Roxy Music. On the other hand, “I Send a Message” finally reveals INXS’ enormous potential to annoy: a basically tuneless song synth-funked into repetitive and grating obnoxiousness. Elsewhere, The Swing offers strong beats, mannered vocals and a unified, au courant sound.
Produced by Chris Thomas, Listen Like Thieves is crisp, lively rock with as little vocal posturing as Michael Hutchence seems capable of, and substantial aggressive guitar work where required. The title tune, “What You Need” and “This Time” all have solid melodies, strong rhythms and decisive hooks. “Shine Like It Does” attempts to generate a folk-rock sensibility with moderate success; other tracks are, at worst, negligible.
With Hutchence launching an acting career (in Dogs in Space) and emerging as a pin-up sex god, INXS made the completely vapid Kick, again using Thomas to dress up the mediocre material. (Needless to add, it became their biggest seller.) The inappropriate and unconvincing meta-political consciousness of a few lyrics doesn’t improve what is essentially tuneless video-dance- rock; the contrived poses on the sleeve indicate what really makes INXS run. Other than the spare and snappy “New Sensation,” this is one of those not uncommon cases when a million fans can be wrong. “We all have wings / But some of us don’t know why” — now that’s heavy. Kick does contain one consolation: a plodding version of the Aussie-punk classic “The Loved One,” originally recorded in the late ’60s by Melbourne’s groovy Loved Ones and previously covered by INXS on a 1981 single.
While the band took a three-year break from recording, Hutchence did a side project, singing, co-writing and co- producing an album with Ian “Ollie” Olsen (ex-Whirlywirld, pre-Third Eye), a patron saint of Australia’s rock underground. Their joint approach gives Max Q a bit of a Midnight Oil feel, with more politics and a rougher rock sound than INXS. The use of synthesizers and strings keeps Max Q from being exactly earthy, but the record’s got a certain energy and forthrightness that makes it an intriguing superstar aside.
That indulgence over, Hutchence got down to platinum tacks with his usual crew and made the dire X (not their tenth album). Weak hooks jammed roughly into weaker (and obviously self-derivative) songs, melodies that go absolutely nowhere, well-intentioned lyrics of stunning vacuity and an absurd funk-groove-and-harmonica single (“Suicide Blonde”) that crosses U2 and Blondie — those are X‘s good points. The only member of the group who comes off well here is bassist Garry Gary Beers, and he’s stuck on the same old riffs. Compared to this halfbaked exercise, INXS’s previous records now seem more like profound artistic achievements.
Although INXS issued a live-on-tour compilation, the best-of and two studio albums in the first half of the ’90s, the sextet’s commercial reliability and front- line prominence was on the wane. But not for lack of effort. The intriguingly good Welcome to Wherever You Are shuffles the deck with samples, world music accents and surprising conceptual inversions, striking a mindful balance between ambition and common sense; the results are uneven but sometimes genuinely rewarding. “Communication” uses the studio to excellent effect, fitting the pieces together with catchy guitar work and a Hutchence vocal that serves the song, not the other way around. “Back on Line” heads down a sinuous keyboard path that suggests where U2 might have headed if the Edge had taken piano lessons as a child. And instead of letting the orchestra on “Baby Don’t Cry” provide background shading as is traditional for such endeavors, INXS and their co-producer Mark Opitz push it to the front of the mix, forcing the rock instruments to compete, which makes for one hot-blooded arrangement.
Full Moon, Dirty Hearts (which, unlike X, is the band’s tenth album) retreats disappointingly to the safety of familiar routines — and the wishful U2 aura that has frequently attended the band. The recycled rock- funk repetition (“Make Your Peace,” “I’m Only Looking”) and Hutchence’s un-hunh? duets with Ray Charles (the Stonesy “Please (You Got That….)”) and Chrissie Hynde (the sensuous “Full Moon Dirty Hearts”) are one thing. But the panels of thick mechanical guitar distortion, fuzzed bass and weird-snare veneer on “The Gift,” “Days of Rust,” “Time” and the spoken “Viking Juice (The End of Rock & Roll)” could justify a letter of protest from U2’s embassy.