Keep Your Glass Topped Up

Australian Rockers and Poppers Don’t Get Up Themselves

The new Odyssey No. 5 (Universal) is more sentimental and just as melodious. "This will be an uncertain time for us," the album opens, and though it continues "my love," preparing us for a collection of, essentially, love songs, the line could be a declaration of the band's current limbo. Rolling Stone in Australia predicted the album would gain them overseas exposure, but it hasn't happened yet. Accompanied by climbing violins and campfire guitar licks that lead always to soft distorted climaxes, Fanning sings in a voice that moves from dark to up and sweet and has a bamboo-wrapped adolescent core. Powderfinger are Australia's Radiohead, sometimes its Pearl Jam, and potentially its U2. They are resented by bedroom musicians who smoke good pot and flick obsessively for inspiration beyond the guitar-band norm. But the boys from Down Under's Up North are adored by the pop and alternative hordes.

It's anyone's guess as to why the rainy-day essence of Powderfinger is not as bottlable as the postcard lyrics of Men at Work or the well-guitared pop-punk of the Living End. "There's a sense of irony in a lot of our music, a self-effacing quality that may be a hindrance to overseas success," Richard Kingsmill says. "But, well, I think Americans just don't get our sense of humor. And that's annoying." "The Metre" is a noted favorite off Odyssey. "Welcome to the saving grace," Fanning sings in a deep monotone. "There's a sunset on the road." But the descending bow strokes of the melody are nothing but melancholy. "Keep your glass topped up; it's not over yet," he then warns. It's not ha-ha funny; the charm lies in its absolute denial of romantic ideals. Whereas bigger is all that's acceptable in the U.S.—without a throbbing ego in this cruel culture, your petals will just keep on shrinking—subtlety is the key in Australia, and there is no tolerance for pretense. The last thing you want to be in our exotic land is "up yourself."

It's a confusing and random mix of talent that appeals to American lobes. The Polyester Embassy (Columbia), debut album by the tinny Melbourne duo Madison Avenue, has but one catchy phrase: the title to their American dance hit "Don't Call Me Baby," which hook gives false hope of a "new feminism" already fulfilled by the Spice Girls. Where Kylie Minogue is an enduring silk, one sweat drop on the polyester sustaining Madison Avenue releases an odor all too reminiscent of uninspired days of drinking cheap goon (wine in a foil cask) at the back of a school dance.

Killing Heidi tie their kangaroo down, sport.
photo: Chris Cuffaro
Killing Heidi tie their kangaroo down, sport.

Where pens should be pointing is to corners less obvious. Four years ago, from inland Violet Town (population approximately 2000), 12-year-old schoolgirl Ella Hooper, slouched forward and dressed all in black, and her brother Jesse submitted a tape to Triple J's Unearthed—an initiative calling for material from country-town bands and responsible for rummaging out some of Australia's finest rock stars. Aussies love exacting lyrics like "Boring, ignored by the things you are taught by the outside world/Just wearing black won't take care of that/Don't be stupid, girl." So last year, Hooper's foursome, Killing Heidi, came away from the 14th ARIA Awards with Best Rock Album, Best Album, Best Group, and Best New Album Artist honors, beating out predicted favorites Madison Avenue and Vanessa Amorosi, who are both doing well in the States. Killing Heidi's first album, Reflector (Universal), mixes dark with light, raw rock with Portishead. Hooper is Shirley Manson, Courtney Love, Aimee Mann, and a true-blue small-town Aussie chick with the vocal cords of a rainforest bird. So far, America hasn't noticed.

Impressively, however, the latest blue eyes attracting American all sorts are those of Kasey Chambers, whose album The Captain (Asylum) aimed to change the Australian public's view of country music. She is fast becoming the Ani DiFranco of country, her album having gone well over platinum down below and selling big in Europe and the U.K. as well. Chambers has ridden her proverbial horse all over Tamworth (Australia's country capital) and Nashville with her family in the Dead Ringer Band, and now she's doing it on her own with a petrol-coated throat that opens and cracks like good sex when she's trading her "soul for another" and that dances like a precocious Punky Brewster when she's taking "comfort in the rosewood." Her vocal range puts her up there with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton. Her lyrics will often make you cringe, but she can also make doing the heel-and-toe polka seem damn cool.

As much as Australia needed Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett in the '80s, his idiosyncratic jerking movements drawing attention to the burning beds of industrial miners and the lost land of our indigenous, today we need a young Chambers to speak of our sadness, our isolation, and our alleged overwhelming love for lager with the seriousness of an eager artist and the cheeriness of a girl who lived "that Southern kind of life." "Well it hurts down here on earth, Lord, it hurts down here on earth," she says. "It hurts down here 'cos we're running out of beer. But we're all gonna die someday."

Killing Heidi play Shine April 11.

Related article:

George Smith on Rose Tattoo.

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