"That's a good thing," says Scott Owen, the Living End's jovial bassist and vocalist. "It's a compliment if you're the duck's nuts."
Uh, OK. Animal genitalia masquerading as flattery. Of course. Any other colloquialisms we should be warned about?
"Another saying in Australia is called the 'tall poppy syndrome' -- cutting down the people that do well," adds Hamish Rosser, the impish, quick-witted drummer for the Vines. "There's a field of flowers, [the] one that gets cut down is a tall one, right?"
Rosser laughs, but he could be forgiven if the phrase hits a little too close to home. The buzz-prone British (and, to a lesser extent, American) press hyped the Vines heavily before the group's 2002 debut, Highly Evolved, even hit stores, allowing the disc to debut in the Billboard Top 20. And the record's frenzied mix of stoned-in-space atmosphere, grunge regurgitation and pretty melodies spawned a lurching U.S. radio hit, "Get Free."
Yet vocalist and songwriter Craig Nicholls' erratic behavior -- an outburst on David Letterman's Late Show, meltdowns at gigs and a well-publicized love of ganja -- tainted the band's fortunes and helped kill most of the commercial momentum built from the Vines' early success. Not that the group has lost confidence in its sound; the quartet's new album, optimistically titled Winning Days, doesn't deviate much from Evolved's float-like-a-butterfly, sting-like-a-bee musical blueprint.
"All the songs are pretty much Craig's, and a bunch of the songs were done before we actually came to record them, so we've had them kicking around a long time," says Rosser, who joined the band after original drummer David Olliffe left during the recording of Evolved. "We've been playing quite a lot of them live as well.
"You'll still find a lot of outdoor imagery on the album, like 'Autumn Shade' and 'Rainfall,' [and] even 'Fuck The World' and 'Sun Child,'" Rosser continues. Some of the inspiration, he says, comes from "Craig looking out his back door at his garden."
Indeed, dreamy harmonies and drowsy riffs give "Shade" and "Sun" tree-hugging overtones. But the album's first single, "Ride," punches with bar-band riffs and Nicholls' trademark slurred yowls. "Rainfall" shimmers with hints of psychedelic Brit-pop, and "Animal Machine" swerves messily like a track from Nevermind Jr. The album sounds more, well, advanced than Evolved. It's a deliberately mismatched outfit worn for fashion rather than a haphazard ensemble thrown together because nothing else was clean.
"The band hadn't really done a whole lot of shows when they made the first album," Rosser explains. "This time around, you had [guitarist] Ryan [Griffiths] and me in the band playing together for more like 200 gigs, so that really helps the band sound more like a unit."
The Living End -- makers of the lad-punk anthem "Roll On" and the Clash-style, rockabilly-flavored rave "Prisoner of Society" -- also experienced a shift in chemistry before recording its latest album, Modern Artillery. Drummer Travis Dempsey left the band, and singer Chris Cheney was in a car accident that left him unable to play guitar during months of rehab. The band weathered the changes and channeled the challenges into Artillery.
"When Chris had the accident, it put the band on the back burner for a little while ... [and] gave us a lot more time to think about other things than just the band," Owen says. "When we did get back into getting the ball rolling again, we came with a bit of a fresh perspective, 'cause we had a bit of time away from it, which we've never had before."
The extra time for songwriting shows in Artillery's boisterous tunes, which veteran producer Mark Trombino buffed with gloss heretofore unknown on Living End discs. "Jimmy" and "Maitland Street" feature showers of harmonies, the reggae swish of "Bringing You Down" swings with midtempo laziness, and "Short Notice" is a vintage piece of Green Day Dookie.
But the album isn't another hunk of slick mall-punk -- "End of the World" skanks like a hornless ska number, and despite its pint-hoisting, pub sing-along atmosphere, "Who's Gonna Save Us?" offers a dire outlook (We're under attack now/Our work is all cut out/Whatever happened to your rights?).
On the street, Owen admits, the members of the Living End aren't quite the ferocious, fist-wielding dynamos they are onstage. Who would win in a brawl among the toughies on the Aussie Invasion tour and other massive Oz bands of the past -- the pretty boys in INXS, Vegemite-fueled Men at Work, politically conscious Midnight Oil, balls-out riffers AC/DC and Rose Tattoo? Owen's response isn't exactly fodder for Wrestlemania XXI.
"I reckon we would be the first ones out of there running, 'cause when it comes to fighting, we're pretty good runners," Owen says with a laugh. "No, we'd stand up for ourselves. We just don't want to fight with anyone. We will if we have to, but we don't want to. Our strongest thing is our songs and our playing."
And that's why they're the duck's nuts.