Eskimo Joe: Black Fingernails, Red Wine

[18 October 2007]

By Dan Raper

It’s difficult to foresee Eskimo Joe making the big splash in the U.S. that they made back home in Australia with their latest album Black Fingernails, Red Wine. It’s not (just) a quality issue. In fact, this album’s a much tighter illustration of pop songcraft than any of the endless new British indie-pop continually leaching across the Atlantic. Just, some combination of MTV/ClearChannel preference and the very mainstreamness of Eskimo Joe’s sound may result in them slipping by in the avalanche of unnoticed rock bands.

The band’s come from such humble beginnings. At first, like any guitar/bass/drums trio, the sound was straight punk. But even at this embryonic stage, something must have clicked – they won the Australian National Campus Band Competition in 1997, joining fellow West Australians Jebediah flying the whine-rock flag. Their first single, “Sweater”, a “One Week”-style pop-punk anthem, turned bad fashion (a “shitty brown sweater”) into defiance and individuality. Since then the band’s steady rise in popularity (their last two albums have both achieved platinum sales) has followed an easily traceable route from straight pop-punk to straight radio pop-rock. There were hints from the beginning, when you go back and listen. Eskimo Joe has always loved patent melody, that straightforward singalong spirit that propels the Green Days and Blink 182s and all their younger clones.

If Eskimo Joe just kept pumping out laid-back surfer-punk melodies they’d no doubt have a small but loyal local following, little more. What’s helped them in their continued assault on the charts back home, basically, is the keyboard. On Black Fingernails, Red Wine the instrument is ubiquitous – and it makes the group’s sound at once more accessible and a little darker. The tone of the album as a whole is more covered, more depressed…

…but it doesn’t stop the mellower Joes fleshing out a workable approximation of Powderfinger’s Odyssey No. 5, the closest thing that band’s come to success overseas. It was always sad seeing those Aussie heroes (they sell out stadiums back home) play to small rock clubs in the U.S., on occasion even going so far as to exhort ex-pats not to attend so that they could raise a local fanbase. But overpopularity’s never been a particular problem, has it? And if a band’s failed, it could be luck and it could be something simpler. “Setting Sun” is “Like A Dog”, echoing Bernard Fanning’s end-phrase flourish and Ian Haug’s amped guitars (with a chorus more or less straight from “Forever Young” – the Youth Group version).

Pointing out similarities and influences here is only pertinent in that Eskimo Joe really do sound like a lot of other bands. Their ideas, even when more or less their own, sometimes bear hilarious resemblance to old, well-recognized tunes. The chorus of “Sarah”, with its major fifth leap, will remind you of the theme from a 1984 film starring Falcor the luckdragon, one example. But “Black Fingernails, Red Wine”, the first (and massively successful) single, channels Midnignt Oil to make something entirely the group’s own. The song is model pop: pianos, strings, melancholy melody – you may miss that the song’s actually about “the argument about God”.

Armed with their ARIAs (the Aussie equivalent of Grammys) and their radio singles, Eskimo Joe may have high hopes for the ever elusive “U.S. market”. There are plenty of textbook-catchy melodies on Black Fingernails, Red Wine, that’s for sure. And even on obviously non-single tracks, like “Beating Like A Drum”, there’s a certain menace generated by low piano chords and the beauty of Kavyen Temperley’s voice occasionally revealed. But, ultimately, Eskimo Joe don’t stick out in the right ways, don’t conform in others, that create a commercial winner. If their aims are more modest, they may find a fair number of Americans receptive to this inoffensive “Alternative” pop-rock.

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