By Dean Goodman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Thirteen years after the premature death of their frontman, Australian rockers INXS still have not settled on a full-fledged replacement.
But the five members of the most successful homegrown rock act from Down Under are working with an assortment of singers in the meantime.
In the first few years after Michael Hutchence accidentally hanged himself in a Sydney hotel room in 1997, they teamed with the likes of Terence Trent D'Arby and local heroes Jimmy Barnes and Jon Stevens for various shows.
Then they went the American reality-TV show route, ending up with an unknown Canadian, J.D. Fortune, who remains their first choice on the concert circuit.
They have just activated another back-up plan, recruiting a host of international names for a new album boasting sharply reworked versions of their classic songs.
"Original Sin," named after their breakthrough hit single, features Matchbox 20 frontman Rob Thomas on the title track. Other collaborators include Train singer Pat Monahan, roots rocker Ben Harper and trip-hop star Tricky.
It marks the band's first album since "Switch," the 2005 release on which Fortune made his debut after he won "Rock Star: INXS." The band's album sales had been on the wane before Hutchence's death, and "Switch" failed to arrest the decline.
Their compatriots, AC/DC, had much better luck after original singer Bon Scott died in 1980. A few weeks later they also recruited an unknown, Brian Johnson, and endure to this day as a stadium-filling behemoth.
"Original Sin" started taking shape more than two years ago as "a kooky idea" while INXS was jamming in a studio, according to drummer Jon Farris, the concept's main cheerleader.
"We started to muck around with some back catalog stuff. We were literally just dismantling things for the fun of it, instrumentally," Farris said in a recent interview over lunch.
"That's when it started to be a bit more adventurous. Let's stop recording this song now. Why don't we really, really pull it apart? That's when obviously we had some very spirited discussions, which was great."
Tensions arose as his older brother and the band's primary songwriter, Andrew Farris, anxiously watched his tunes get deconstructed. The band is rounded out by lead guitarist Tim Farris, the eldest of the brothers, guitarist/saxophonist Kirk Pengilly and bassist Garry Gary Beers.
"You play a song for 20, 25 years a certain way and it's played every day on the radio that way -- if it ain't broke don't fix it," said Beers. "But we really wanted to get the core of what makes this a great band and makes us enjoy our own songs and write great songs."
One such song is "Mystify," a tune first heard on their biggest album, 1987's "Kick." It is unrecognizable on the new album. French chanteuse Loane delivered a completely fresh adaptation of the melody, helped by John Mayer on guitar.
INXS gave the guest vocalists plenty of free rein. When the band approached Matchbox 20's Thomas about doing the ballad "Never Tear Us Apart," he asked if he could do "Original Sin" instead. Nikka Costa was not knocked over by a proposed revamp of "Kick," prompting the band to start with a new arrangement.
Fortune appears on two tracks. He is also writing songs with the band for an album of new material. His overnight ascension to stardom alongside a group of much older road veterans inevitably led to a drug problem and his erroneous allegation that had been callously fired.
Hometown critics were unimpressed with the album. The Australian newspaper called it "not so much awful as unnecessary," while The (Adelaide) Advertiser labeled it "Michael Hutchence's worst nightmare."
No one can really replace Hutchence, the charismatic singer who channeled Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger and wrote most of the lyrics. His death shocked the pop world, not to mention all Australians, and came as the band was rehearsing for a tour. There was no chance to say goodbye to their high school pal.
Farris, under no illusions that the album will be a big seller, views it as "our cathartic healer."
(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)