Icehouse’s Great Southern Land

First, a bit of history is in order:

I first ran across Icehouse in the early ‘90s. One of the bartenders at my then-favorite watering hole had added “Love in Motion (No Promises)” to his mix, and the song just caught me. Got the album, listened to it for a while, and, as these things tend to go, moved on to other things. Recently, that song got into my head again and I hunted up a copy of the CD – and decided it was time to learn about Icehouse.

Icehouse is an Australian band formed by Iva Davies in 1977, under the name Flowers. In ’81 he changed the name to Icehouse, as the group started to get some international air play and actually hit the charts in the U.S. and UK. Davies is a classically trained musician who created one of the more musically literate groups in the history of rock. Icehouse early on moved into synthesizers and CMIs (computerized musical instruments), although they never went to the lengths of another of my favorites, Depeche Mode.

Great Southern Land is a compilation from 1989, and really serves as a “best-of-to-date” sample. And I’ve come to the conclusion, again, that Icehouse was an exceptional group.

Point: An artist doesn’t have to be pushing the envelope to be excellent. The archetype there is Mozart: he didn’t really do anything revolutionary, he just wrote some of the greatest music ever within a fairly tightly constrained form (yes, he took liberties, but then, everyone does). Listening to Great Southern Land, what I hear is a survey of the rock of the ‘80s – call it “new wave,” “post punk” or “synthpop,” as you will – that somehow retains a strong invidividuality, to the extent that one can listen to “We Can Get Together” and admire the riff on David Bowie that Davies is turning out – and it seems a quite deliberate hommage — and never mistake it for another group.

Davies himself is remarkable: front man, artistic director, motivating force. He’s done scores for the Sydney Dance Company (Boxes and Berlin, their two most commercially successful programs to date) and film scores. Here he appears on lead vocals, guitars, and keyboards. He’s a remarkable singer – on my list of one of the very best rock singers, moving from a smiling, arch bitchiness in “Hey, Little Girl” to the raw pain of “Don’t Believe Anymore” without a hitch. The emotional range is astonishing: he is rough, angry, vulnerable, tender, cool, and just about everything that might lie between those points. That range alone, I think, is enough to move him into the realm of the greats.

One thing that surprises me is my reaction to the album. I hear a lot of music, of a lot of different types and traditions. Most of it I enjoy, because I love music, everything from Javanese gamelan to African contemporary to Nordic roots – not to mention the long and varied traditions of Western music. (I am known in some quarters as “The Weird Music Guy.”) I have a number of “Best Of” collections, and I have to say, on each and every one of them, there is bound to be a song or two that just doesn’t cut it – they’re OK, maybe, but not that interesting. Great Southern Land gets to me like not much else does (OK – Beethoven’s 7th will do it – von Karajan’s or Steinberg’s interpretations — and the “Todesverkundigung” from Walkure). It’s the only collection I can think of that not only doesn’t have a song I don’t think is exceptional, but doesn’t have a song I don’t like. (There are even Depeche Mode songs I don’t like.) One of my absolute demands is that a performer has to be doing something interesting with the music – I’ve heard wildly popular bands who were, in the final analysis, formulaic and boring. Not here. There isn’t a track that doesn’t have something wonderful going on musically – as I said earlier, not necessarily ground-breaking, but sophisticated, intelligent, and entertaining, musicianship of a very high order.

(Regular Records/Chrysalis Records, 1989)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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