Powderfinger

Odyssey Number Five (Republic/Universal)

Okay, this one's a no-brainer. Australian Rock. What do these words bring to mind? If you say "Radio Birdman," you need to take off your headphones and look outside. It's 2001. Ditto "The Birthday Party." And Nick Cave/Bad Seeds/Dirty Three haven't lived in Australia for years, so they don't count.

Eliminate the specialist vinyl and the pre-1990s (sorry, Church fans) and one is hard put to come up with much beyond Silverchair (see W.C. Fields re: children and animals) and the oh-so-unnecessaryness of INXS. Delivered with a workmanlike enthusiasm, Aussie rock has always been predictably banal. While England and the United States have produced interesting results in their ongoing attempts to imitate each other and/or break free of the pernicious foreign influence, the good stuff always comes from one tribe's misinterpretation of the other. Powderfinger, on the other hand, just wants to be Alternative Rock.

As names go, this one does exactly what it says on the box. Powderfinger has an up-to-date Neil Young Fan Club Membership tattooed on its collective heart, except the members are too young to have absorbed Mr. Young without ingesting an unhealthy amount of Pearl Jam, and it shows. That doesn't mean that it's bad, just that it has the urge to hold its lighter in the air unencumbered by embarrassment or shame. The album is filled with heartfelt songs about, well . . . imagine a healthy, clear-eyed young man standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea with the wind in his hair, wearing a denim shirt and bravely weathering his 20s. No one would want to doubt Powderfinger's sincerity, but this angst by numbers -- without a hint of fear or anger to redeem it -- leaves it little more than a Happy Mainstream Rock Product.

Powderfinger: Like Neil Young by way of Pearl Jam.
Powderfinger: Like Neil Young by way of Pearl Jam.

The fact that this is Powderfinger's fourth record in a string of multiplatinum successes back home means that it has the budget for a string section to back singer Bernard Fanning's songs of emotional righteousness like the requisite big anthem "The Metre." This is not without merit: The band has had enough time to hone its craft. The songwriting is strong, the guitars are lovingly recorded -- it is an embarrassment of lush pop richness. "Like a Dog" definitely wants to be Iggy's puppy when it grows up, but by mime rather than intention, which has an unpleasant effect.

Imagine La Bowie, circa Diamond Dogs, singing for a hard rockin' band about how "You treat me like a dog/And keep me locked in a cage." Not pretty, is it? "These Days," "Not My Kinda Scene" and "The Day You Came" all show some restraint worthy of the voice, but are eventually sold down the river once more by criminally obvious language about "Time slipping through my hands/These days didn't turn out like I planned" and other painful platitudes. Assorted references to the big letdown that is adulthood litter the album's vocabulary, but in a very polite way. The guitar riff on "We Should Be Together Now" was last heard played with a bit more conviction on an Oasis single, and plagiarizing the kings of plagiarism is never a good sign.

"My Happiness," the album's first single, is also its best song. From the opening wibble/Mutron guitar, it stands head and shoulders above the rest of the album. It's got a chorus that allows you to leave your lighter in your pocket, and words that you haven't necessarily heard before. But more important than anything else, it allows Fanning the grace and humanity of a little ambiguity. When he sings "My happiness is slowly creeping back/Now you're at home/If it ever starts sinking in/It must be when you pack up and go," we don't really know if the returned lover inspires happiness and confidence, or if those are feelings that have risen to the surface in the lover's absence, or, more intriguingly, if it's perhaps a little of both. Is the "Click of your heels on the concrete/Waiting for a knock coming way too late" a picture of an eagerly anticipated return, or is it a day late, dollar short situation, and has Fanning outgrown it all? This is important stuff, after all. If you're going to try to make an interesting and angsty rock record, you shouldn't have all the answers quite so close at hand.

Powderfinger's press gumph says "Comparisons have been made by journalists and the band themselves to Radiohead, U2, Crowded House and David Bowie." Close your eyes, conjure up an Australian accent and imagine some poor fucker saying, "All right, mate; we sound a little like Radiohead . . ." and you cannot help but laugh. Nice try, lads. Perhaps what they meant to say was that they had liberally pinched bits of bands they admire -- which everybody does -- and, through years of hard graft, learned how to put them together in a passable rock song, which is no small feat and should be appreciated for exactly what it is.

Not a bad band, just not a thing of aching originality or incendiary power and beauty.

 
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