You don’t really hear what all the fuss is about until you’re well into Odyssey Number Five‘s third track, “The Metre”. Then, about three minutes in, a nearly ineffable thing happens: you’re overcome by the cascades of a truly passionate sound. The drums are diligent and painstaking, the guitars solemn yet incessant, the vocals eerily spiritual. The remainder of the song carries you on that wave toward belief, and the track ends like a marvelous, satisfied sigh.
Back up a few steps. The “fuss” is that Powderfinger is one of the biggest bands in Australia, that every one of their three albums has gone platinum; that they were certified the band of the year by Rolling Stone‘s Australian counterpart. In the States this spring, Powderfinger spent time riding on the coattails of Coldplay, the current darling of American on-again, off-again anglophila. For certain, this country’s musical scene needs a facelight, as major record labels mostly race each other to see who can produce more highly manicured drivel. And rock outfits from overseas seems to be taking up at least some of that lag. But the question isn’t whether a band like Powderfinger can conquer North America — whether or not they do depends on much more than the additive or subtractive forces of raw talent and muscular marketing. What’s truly curious is, of course, a matter of sensibility and creativity.
Because the nucleus of their sound is lead singer Bernard Fanning’s voice, meaty, rolling ballads are by far Powderfinger’s strongest suit. Thanks to his sooty, easy style, a song like “Up & Down & Back Again” rushes to greet the listener wherever s/he is, reaching its tentacles into melancholy, ennui, nervousness, inertia with minor tonalities and driving, frenetic guitar. Other slow numbers like “My Kind of Scene” and “These Days” own the same resigned, ambivalent grace. It’s lay-on-your-bed-and-contemplate-the-nihilism-of-it-all kind of music–the kind of songs you put on repeat for hours, or days.
Where they falter is on the faster numbers — mostly because that same quality which surges in the ballads barely flinches against more intense, rigid instrumentals. It’s as though his voice teacher told him not to strain his voice — but for the kind of relentless energy they give their faster numbers, you kind of have to. In “Like a Dog”, he sings a line like “If you treat me like a dog / And keep me locked in a cage / I’m not relaxed or comfortable/ I’m aggravation and rage” with nearly the same flavor as those more morose tracks. For that reason, the music lacks the rock to really, well, rock. It’s never offensive, insipid, or unpleasant, but it sounds mostly a little bored. This is so even in the album’s opener, “Waiting for the Sun”, and their Mansun-influenced single, “My Happiness” — arguably the most important tracks to wail.
So the fuss isn’t fluff, but it may be more fancy than anything. Secure Powderfinger’s most solid tracks on a few good mix CDs — and leave the remainder to fleeting radio singles and background music.