By: Eric Greenwood
The Vines are currently experiencing a dangerous wave of hype. As The Strokes and The White Stripes know very well, this can only lead to that polarizing "love it or hate it" status amongst the music literati. Consequently, The Vines will be judged against the hype, which invariably leads to unfair scrutiny and ready dismissal. America likes underdogs, so bands that show up out of the blue with too many foreign accolades under their belts tend to be judged harshly.
You may remember The Vines from its contribution to the I Am Sam Soundtrack earlier this year…or you may not. Its cover of "I'm Only Sleeping" while inoffensive even to Beatles purists is questionable only because of its audacity. Who is this band you've never heard of covering the Beatles with such attitude on a lame, train wreck of a soundtrack, featuring The Black Crowes doing "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds?" Any band with an ounce of integrity would object to being associated with this film and that goes double for the soundtrack. I actually forgot that The Vines were on this soundtrack until a few months ago when I rediscovered it playing Tops Of The Pops on BBC America. I couldn't place where I'd heard the band before, and it drove me nuts for weeks.
The song The Vines played on Tops Of The Pops that random Saturday afternoon was "Highly Evolved", and it rocked. As the only band that didn't mime its music, The Vines stood out amidst the faceless English boy bands and mind-numbing electronic pop acts. Craig Nichols' melodic screaming immediately reminded me of Kurt Cobain’s shredded wail, and the music had that cocky swagger that only young upstarts are brave/dumb enough to pull off. I immediately went off to download the song, but I was slightly disappointed by what I found. The screaming was blunted by numerous overdubs and the music lacked the edge the band displayed live, so my interest quickly waned.
Seeing adds for the band's debut album every few minutes on MTV recently peaked my curiosity again. I decided that I could risk the "special low price" of $9.99 to see if the album were any better than the two songs I'd heard. Having listened to it three times, I'm still undecided, leaning towards "no." Perhaps, I should wait a few more weeks to write a review, but I have a hunch things won't improve over time. It's not like the music is so dense that it takes time to absorb. This is uncomplicated pop music to say the least. The album definitely has a few remarkable moments, but it's really just not very good. I knew it was a bad sign when I liked the blunted version of "Highly Evolved" better than any other song.
The biggest flaw is inarguably the production. Craig Nichols has an amazing voice. That is a given. He screams his nuts off, but he can make notes out of it the same way Kurt Cobain could. He can also belt out high notes without breaking up his voice, and he has a flawless falsetto. The problem is that he overdubs so many takes of his voice that you can't distinguish what is happening. It's just a blurry, messy chorus of vocals, and it sounds like complete shit. The music suffers the same problem. Everything is so slick and glossy that it never really rocks. Yeah, the guitars are loud, but they don't slice through the speakers the way they should. Nirvana's Nevermind was probably a bit too slick as well, which Kurt Cobain would have been the first to admit, but at least it maintained its edge.
The second biggest flaw of Highly Evolved is the songwriting. Craig Nichols may possess an extraordinary voice, but his music has yet to evolve into anything that could constitute memorable rock and roll. Everything on here is a retread, and Nichols does little to reveal himself as a writer. His influences are numerous and varied (Beatles, Beach Boys, Nirvana), but they display themselves in short irreconcilable bursts that lack cohesion or consistency. And his lyrics are hackneyed and trite to the point of utter embarrassment. I've always been suspect of lyricists that rely on excessive "yeah’s" to get them through choruses, but Nichols has no shame whatsoever in that regard. Nor does he mind utter mundanities like “I left my home/I left my home yeah/where I should go/where I should go yeah, yeah/Nothin’s gonna save you/nothin’s gonna save you out there” (“Homesick”).
Highly Evolved is a spotty debut at best and an over-hyped failure at worst. The hype will most likely be destructive in the end because The Vines don't yet possess the chops to back it all up.