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Thunder from Down Under

Powderfinger has conquered the Fatal Shore. Is America next?

Say what you will about failed love affairs, how they wreak havoc on your emotions and leave your psychic closets bulging with unwanted baggage. But fall in love with the right person, like a cute drummer from Australia, and you've got a hot tip on future musical trends, all based on the fact that your loved one (who eventually turns out to be a colossal dingus) makes you a compilation tape of shit-hot Australian bands that no one has heard of in the States. Yet. For long after your ex's pierced tongue is but a fading memory, you still have the tape, and when the time comes, you're the only one on your block who knows who the hell Powderfinger is. But you won't be alone in this boat for long, because some secrets are just too good to be kept forever.

Back before Powderfinger was a rock group that could do no wrong down under, there were five young men from Brisbane (in Queensland, Florida's prettier cousin) who drifted together, as so many great bands do, through a mutual love of music and general lack of interest in flipping burgers or driving a desk. Singer Bernard Fanning, whose distinctive mellow-yellow tenor is a flickering fire on a cold, cold night, met guitarist Ian Haug on their university campus in 1989. Fast-forward five years to the band's first release, Parables for Wooden Ears. Not much can be said about this album other than that it is most often referred to as being "awkward." The record that started to turn listeners' heads was the excellent Double Allergic, which boasts a rippling, epic sound that expresses anger and intensity without resorting to histrionics. It is controlled rage, a pursing of lips and a chilly reproach, rather than a hissy fit.

But it was 1998's Internationalist that made Powderfinger's fortune. It's a beautiful record that scorches and soothes, is plaintive and furious. It moved a lot of copies. Not only did it ensure packed houses at the band's shows, it also gave the boys from Brizzy the cred they needed to eventually land an international deal. Enter Odyssey Number Five, which is just as important, if not as epic and thundering, as the two records that made Powderfinger Australia's most-loved band. Odyssey is a slightly more pop-oriented effort, probably designed to appeal to America's alleged craving for sonic candy. The sound is still controlled, powerful, with blazing rhythm lines tempered by orchestral accents and Fanning's powerful pipes. While the group has garnered comparisons to U2 and Pearl Jam, it's not because Powderfinger sounds like them; it's because each is lyrically intense, precise and sincere.

America needs Powderfinger more than Powderfinger needs America.
Scarlet Page
America needs Powderfinger more than Powderfinger needs America.

All of this makes it hard to believe that Britain's formal penal colony still seems reluctant to allow its residents to break out beyond its fatal shores. But for every inexplicable escapee (Kylie Minogue, Olivia Newton-John, Air Supply), there is at least one talented fugitive sneaking out below the radar. Nick Cave. INXS. Midnight Oil. Every single one of these acts did time in obscurity before garnering notice abroad. Trying to launch a career from the world's most isolated continent has its pros and cons. The Australian dollar is worth about 50 cents in U.S. currency, which makes stateside tours prohibitive for anyone who's not Rupert Murdoch. Then again, with its white sandy beaches, crystal-clear, albeit sharky, seas and impeccable wines, Australia isn't exactly the fifth ring of hell, either. "We live in the best place in the world," says bassist John Collins, "which allows us to be creative."

Australia's connection to the Commonwealth doesn't hurt, either. "Being an Australian, you get influenced by not just the American music market; we get influenced from Europe, particularly the UK. And we also have a really awesome, strong scene ourselves," says Collins. "In that way, I think it's an advantage as an Australian because you're not hammered with one type of commercial rock sound that seems to come out of America a lot of the time. We get to pick and choose what we want to listen to."

Then again, there's that whole island-nation thing working against you. "It's bloody hard," he admits. "When Internationalist came out, our record company [Polygram] was going through a whole reshuffle; Universal bought it. So the person who liked the record lost his job. With Double Allergic, we had a couple of [North American] people come over, and they said, 'If you're going to sign a band outside of America, I think Powderfinger should be it.' And the guy at the head of that company said, 'I don't think it's going to work on American radio.' So therefore, with one statement, it was gone. With Universal, it seems like they just got into it and haven't stuffed around."

But the road to greatness is strewn with the carcasses of yesterday's Next Big Things; it is possible to catch the ears of the American listening public and still end up flipping burgers for a living (hello, Icehouse, the Cruel Sea, the Divinyls), something the boys in Powderfinger are keenly aware of. "We're doing what we do, working, playing, traveling," Collins muses. "We'd like to have some success in other countries, but it's not something you can force, and we're not going to put all our eggs in one basket because we might drop it."

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