Good Australian bands face one major hurdle in going from success at home to success abroad - Australia is a long way from the main markets of the US and Europe. One band that deserves to break into the big time is Brisbane's Powderfinger, arguably Australia's finest rock band and producers of intelligent, heart-felt guitar music of the highest quality. Take a blender and throw in latter-day Pearl Jam, Bends-era Radiohead and Crowded House's Together Alone, and you're still nowhere near describing Powderfinger... but at least it's a start.
For those non-Antipodeans who are interested in finding out why Powderfinger have taken their home country by storm, the only album that's easily available outside Australia is Odyssey Number Five, which is convenient as it is a stunning piece of work. The preceding album Internationalist is arguably even more impressive, though it's currently only available as an import if you don't share the same continent as the band.
The Story of Powderfinger
The roots of Powderfinger can be traced back to a high school in Brisbane, Queensland, where three schoolmates - Ian Haug (guitar and vocals), John Collins (bass) and Steven Bishop (drums) - got together in 1989 to play cover versions, calling themselves 'Powderfinger' after a Neil Young song. After moving on to the University of Queensland, Ian met journalism student Bernard Fanning in an economics class, and after discovering that Bernard could sing, Ian asked him to join the band as vocalist.
Meanwhile Steven left the band, to be replaced by Jon Coghill, a botany student also at the University of Queensland. Then, in 1992, Bernard and Ian invited guitarist Darren Middleton to complete the line-up, having seen him playing with his band The Pirates in a local football club. This five-man line-up has remained unchanged throughout the band's commercial career.
Initially the band started by pumping out cover versions in local biker clubs, often playing four nights a week and hanging out with other local wannabes like Regurgitator and Custard, both of whom would also go on to greater things. Earning round A$200 for each show, the band managed to scrape together enough cash to make their debut EP 'Powderfinger', which was released in early 1993. The 1500 pressings sold out quickly1 and the resulting publicity was good enough to catch the eye of Polydor, who gave the band enough money to record a second EP.
'Transfusion', which was released in September 1993, hit the number one spot on the Australian alternative chart, knocking Nirvana's 'Heart Shaped Box' off the top. Polydor sensed potential and signed the band up, despite similar interest from Sony (the story goes that the head of A&R2 at Sony turned up to see the band in a limousine, which spooked the band so much they decided to go with Polydor).
In early 1994 the band hit the studio to record what would become their debut album, Parables for Wooden Ears. Released in August, Parables was not well received by the critics, gained practically no radio play, and completely failed to fulfil the potential Polydor had invested in. The label wondered whether to drop the band and cut their losses, but Polydor's A&R man Craig Kamber had great faith in the band and he persuaded Polydor to give the band another chance. (Later, Bernard was to refer to this period as the band's 'dark, dark days').
1995 saw a fair amount of touring plus two new EPs, 'Save Your Skin' and 'Mr Kneebone', but it wasn't until 1996 that the band kicked into a higher gear, when they headed into the studio to record a whole album's worth of new material. One of these songs, 'Pick You Up', was released in June 1996 and got a fair hearing on the nation's premier alternative music radio station, Triple J, catapulting it to number 22 in the Australian singles chart. The follow-up 'd.a.f.' also hit the charts, reaching number 39, and the ensuing album Double Allergic entered the Australian album charts at number seven, peaking at number four and staying in the Top Ten for ten weeks. It would eventually sell over 200,000 copies (compared to around 10,000 for their debut album).
Heavy touring followed in the company of other excellent Australian acts like Big Heavy Stuff, Polyanna, the Hoodoo Gurus and You Am I, but the crowning glory was supporting Crowded House at their farewell show at Sydney Opera House, along with You Am I and Custard. Meanwhile 'Pick You Up' was nominated for two ARIA3 awards, one for song of the year, and the other for single of the year. (Neither nomination won a prize, though.)
1997 continued the touring routine with forays into the USA, Canada and a national tour of Australia, though the year's only release was the single 'Take Me In', taken from Double Allergic. Again the ARIA award nominations poured in - this time five of them, for best Australian album, best Australian group, best Australian single ('d.a.f.'), song of the year ('d.a.f.' again), and best alternative release (Double Allergic). Yet again they failed to actually win any awards, but the publicity didn't harm anyone.
1998 started quietly, with the band recording new songs in the studio under the working title A Series of Small Victories4. In August, the single 'The Day You Come' was released, followed the next month by the album Internationalist. The album entered the charts at number one, and would remain in the Top Ten for weeks, and the Top 20 for over a year, while 'The Day You Come' received rotational airplay on Australian radio.
Continuing the band's love affair with the nation's most influential music radio station, Powderfinger recorded a number of tracks from Internationalist for Triple J's Live at the Wireless, the Australian equivalent of BBC Radio's Peel Sessions. 1999 saw more single releases - 'Already Gone' in February and 'Passenger' in August - as well as a contribution called 'These Days' to the soundtrack album for the film Two Hands, and a cover of Duran Duran's 'The Chauffeur' on the Duran tribute album Undone.
The 1999 ARIA awards produced the usual raft of nominations, but this time the band cleaned up, winning four awards - best album, best rock album and best cover art for Internationalist, and record of the year for 'The Day You Come'. The critics also layered on the praise, giving the band four Music Industry Critic Awards - song of the year and best EP/single for 'The Day You Come', and best Australian album and best CD/album production for Internationalist. But surely the most important accolade was having four songs in the Triple J Hottest 100, including one at the top. The Hottest 100 is the biggest radio poll in the world, and inclusion in the list denotes the nation's seal of approval; in 1999 'These Days', which wasn't a single and didn't even appear on any of the band's albums, was voted the best song of 1999 by Triple J listeners, who also voted 'Already Gone', 'Good-day Ray' and 'Passenger' into the Hottest 100.
Failing to rest on their laurels, Powderfinger hit the studio in 2000 to record their next album. In June, one of the songs, 'My Kind of Scene', made it onto the Mission Impossible 2 soundtrack, while the first single of the year, 'My Happiness', entered the singles chart at number four. The album Odyssey Number Five (which also contained 'These Days') was released in September and immediately went in at number one. Sales in the first week pushed the album to platinum, with sales passing quadruple platinum after 14 weeks, persuading Polydor to release the album internationally in 2001. An appearance on the David Letterman show in the US helped to expose the band to the world outside Australia, and just to keep up appearances, Powderfinger were nominated for three ARIAs... and failed to win any of them.
At the time of writing, Powderfinger are planning to start work on a new album in the near future, which can only be good news for their devoted fan base.
If you like intelligent guitar music, Powderfinger will not disappoint. For non-Australian first-time buyers it's an easy choice, as the only album available internationally is the excellent Odyssey Number Five. For those who live in Australia, or those who don't mind paying extra for imported CDs, Internationalist arguably has the edge over Odyssey, and is highly recommended as an introduction to the band.
If you like the last two albums, then Double Allergic is also a high-quality album, though it's slightly eclipsed by later work.
Parables for Wooden Ears (1994)
At the time of its release, Parables for Wooden Ears was panned as being full of overly-complex arrangements from a band who had become too confident for their own good. If you're new to Powderfinger then you should really start from the other end of the band's discography. It's also a difficult album to track down outside of Australia, so unless you're a local die-hard fan, it's probably best not to bother.
Double Allergic (1996)
Do bother with this one, though. Right from the in-your-face attitude of opener 'Skinny Jean', Double Allergic rocks, especially the singles 'Pick You Up' and 'd.a.f.'. Indeed, Double Allergic is a consistently good album with some seriously anthemic songs, and if you've ever played the guitar or wanted to play the guitar, you'll find yourself unconsciously plucking along to the copious melodic riffs on the album.
The more mellow side of the band emerges on 'JC', a wry look at the way people idolise and iconise others, and tucked away on the end of the album are three unnamed bonus tracks that demonstrate just how much quality material the band created for the album - 'S.S.', the first of these, is easily good enough to stand alongside the named songs on Double Allergic.
Although Internationalist is a better album, Double Allergic contains some extremely strong material, and 'Pick You Up' is a classic song.
As soon as the opening chords of 'Hindley Street' kick in, it's clear that Internationalist is a treat for anyone who finds themselves unable to stay still when quality guitar playing hits the radio. After only a few listens to Internationalist the deceptively simple chord sequences lodge themselves in your head, and you'll find yourself humming 'Capoicity' or 'Passenger' on the way to the bus, vainly trying to stop yourself from playing accompanying air guitar in public.
The songs on Internationalist range from the all-out rock of 'Good-day Ray', 'Belter' and 'Don't Wanna Be Left Out' to the beautiful anthems 'The Day You Come', 'Already Gone' and 'Passenger'. The latter songs aren't the sort that you bounce around the room to; instead they're the songs that you put on loud when the world feels like it's getting too close, songs that make you stand still, clenching your fists and staring into the distance while the music washes through you. More mellow but no less powerful tracks like 'Capoicity', 'Trading Places' and 'Lemon Sunrise' continue the same vibe - a feeling of immense power lurking below Bernard's soft voice and the band's restrained backing - while 'Private Man' is almost a jaunty pop song in comparison.
This album cannot be recommended highly enough.
Odyssey Number Five (2000)
Following Internationalist was never going to be easy, but Odyssey Number Five is another beautifully crafted album of guitar-fuelled emotion. The stand-out tracks 'The Metre', 'My Kind of Scene' and 'These Days' are vintage Powderfinger, while rockers like 'Like a Dog' and 'We Should Be Together Now', and ballads like 'Up & Down & Back Again' and 'Whatever Makes You Happy' demonstrate how well the Powderfinger sound works at both ends of the amplifier's dial.
Lyrically, the songs are as strong as ever, with Bernard's almost effortless voice treating some of the songs like honey. The opening lines of 'The Metre' drip with such a soothing tone that it practically feels like a lover massaging away his girlfriend's worries, a tone that's perfectly suited to the song:
Blow the candles out
Raise a glass to the night
Let all the tension out
You've been wound up so tight
It's a tender trap
To plan ahead all the time
If you measure the world
By what you leave behind
Welcome to the saving grace...
It's marvellous stuff, and an excellent purchase.
Official Powderfinger Site - An excellent site, although it uses Flash quite heavily, so you're in trouble if you have a plug-in paranoia.
Powderfinger Central - A labour of love, this fan site is beautifully laid out, and contains loads of goodies.