Powderfinger: Unreleased 1998-2010
Albums of Odds & Sods (the name the Who gave to one of the first compilations of rarities, released in 1974 in an attempt to short-circuit bootleggers) are often more interesting than best-of collections. While the latter are usually predictable roundups for casual fans of an artist, albums of outtakes, B-sides and strays are for the diehards. Done right, they are a glimpse into a parallel career, the songwriting process and what might have been.
Powderfinger were a democratic band with five headstrong members who all brought ideas into the rehearsal room and who didn’t always agree with one another. Songs would get cut up, rearranged and drift in and out of the conversation for recording. They were both prolific and fussy, so it’s not surprising that over a 20-year career there’s a lot of material in the archives that never saw the light of day.
All that said, it is extraordinary that a song as solid as Day By Day, this album’s hip-shaking lead single, was left off the 2003 album Vulture Street. Singer Bernard Fanning says he’s amazed they didn’t find a place for it; drummer Jon Coghill told me there were too many similar songs on the album. Maybe so, but Day By Day is probably better than half of them. It would hold its own on any best-of record, never mind this album of cast-asides.
It would be unrealistic to expect that the remainder of Unreleased: 1998-2010 – the band’s first record in more than a decade – maintains the standard of Day By Day. If that were the case, the band’s judgment of their own work would have been seriously askew. Only two other songs here were recorded at formal album sessions. The rest are demos, recorded in various home studios in Brisbane in the final stages of the band’s career.
These necessarily have a more rough-hewn quality, despite being buffed within an inch of their lives by the band’s producer Nick DiDia. Some of them are pleasingly raw: the jagged attack of Lou Doimand demonstrates the embarrassment of harder-rocking riches the band were working with during the Vulture Street era. Diamond Ring, recorded in 2009, sounds like a throwback to the band’s earlier grunge years.
There are four other tracks from that year, the time of the band’s final studio album Golden Rule, when interest in Powderfinger was beginning to wane. Happy bounces along with handclaps and an almost funky bassline by John Collins, and the band sound as though they’re having more fun than they did recording the album proper. Daybreak came closer to inclusion but is less arresting, falling victim to its own earnestness.
It’s easy, listening to these songs, to hear why Powderfinger called it a day after Golden Rule. They’d become victims of their own success and were becoming trapped in an idea of what the band ought to sound like in order to sustain it. A decade later, they’ve been away long enough to allow a resurgence of interest. Like most albums of widows and orphans, it’s for fans only, but it’s a more than worthwhile peek into Powderfinger’s back pages.
First published in the Guardian, 26 November 2020