Feb 20, 2002 at 12:00 am

It seems Midnight Oil has its niche pretty well staked out on this, its 14th studio album. Nightmare Before Christmas-looking front man Peter Garrett spits political-environmental screeds at you as his band mates play some of the most anthemic music ever recorded.

Midnight Oil’s music is all about the chorus — the group takes the position that, like any good political slogan, if it doesn’t get stuck in your head, then it doesn’t work. If the chorus doesn’t positively soar with tight harmonies and rhythms, then the band will write an ugly verse section so that the chorus seems heavenly by comparison. Finally, Midnight Oil adds some resourceful, jangly lead guitar playing atop it all (that doesn’t do anything particularly inventive, but is nevertheless engaging), and you’ve got yourself a foolproof recipe for catchy rock music.

You certainly can’t complain that this formula isn’t effective on Capricornia. If anything, songs like “Golden Age” and “Been Away Too Long” are as refreshing as a cold Foster’s on a hot outback day. However, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this album marks a step backward for the band.

Midnight Oil’s 1998 album, Redneck Wonderland, introduced layers of overdriven industrial noise to the music. This effect was invigorating; it was as though the band’s sound finally matched the passion behind their vitriol.

Unfortunately, that album was roundly ignored by fans and critics alike, so now the band is sheepishly returning to what has worked in years past, and the strain to write another “Blue Sky Mine” or “Beds are Burning” is obvious in a few phoned-in tracks like “Too Much Sunshine” and “Mosquito March.” Still, those songs are the exception rather than the rule here, and whether the band is running in place or not, Capricornia is anything but unsatisfying.

E-mail Chris Willie Williams at [email protected].