The sixth studio effort from Powderfinger sees them largely revisit the sound of their Internationalist album, leaving behind much of the glam and swagger of 2003's Vulture Street. Despite the recruitment of Rob Schnapf (Beck, the Vines, Elliott Smith) in favor of three-time Powderfinger producer Nick DiDia, this appears to be a deliberate move to capture the magic and success of the late '90s. Coming together for their first album in four years, the Brisbane quartet chose to work in Los Angeles, except for "Black Tears," which was recorded locally. Partly inspired by the Palm Island death-in-custody trial of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, the song was garnering attention before the album's release, due to fears it could prejudice the proceedings. The band sought legal advice on the matter and changed lyrics of the second verse to "remove even the slightest suggestion of prejudice," according to lead vocalist Bernard Fanning. Controversy and hype aside, "Black Tears" is a stark, haunting piece about the injustices suffered by Aboriginal people ("There's blood on all our hands and blood on our boots/And black tears on a red rock"), almost like a bleak daughter of Goanna's "Solid Rock." The rest of Dream Days at the Hotel Existence features all the trademarks of classic Powderfinger: Fanning's commanding and distinctive vocals, the twin-guitar attack of Darren Middleton and Ian Haug, John Collins' innovative basslines, and the powerhouse drum work of Jon Coghill. The stadium anthem "I Don't Remember" is a great example of this, and the slow-burn assault of "Surviving" sees the band start on an easy groove, which would sound at home on a Faces record, and build it up to a sonic blast of rock. However, some of the tracks aren't as immediate as their previous work, and songs like "Head Up in the Clouds" and "Wishing on the Same Moon" need several listens before revealing their appeal. Even the first single, "Lost and Running," feels tired and sluggish until it has had a chance to sit in your brain for a little while. One of the best two-chord songs written in recent years, Fanning's octave jump in the last verse provides an uplifting rock moment -- a true album highlight. Another great asset is Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers), who plays keys on several cuts, notably the wondrous "Nobody Sees." While there are a couple of low points ("Ballad of a Dead Man," for one, seems a little tedious), this is a fairly strong album from a very accomplished band whose members know their musical strengths. Some of the songs need time to grow on you, so if you're willing to invest the effort, you will be rewarded.
AllMusic Review by Clayton Bolger
feat: Sound of Insanity