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With its snarling guitars and shit-kicking wallop, “Get Free,” the Nirvana-saturated single from the Vines’ fiercely hyped debut, is a genuine neo-garage-rock treat: It actually registers as halfway contemporary by aping a sound that’s merely 10 years old, not 30. But the difference between this band of agitated Aussies and Seattle’s grunge granddaddies is the difference between masturbation and sex—both feel great, but no one’s ever going to confuse the two.
That distinction gets a lot clearer the further into Highly Evolved you delve. As coughed up by singer-guitarist Craig Nicholls, the disc’s melodies are mostly winsome stuff—reflexively distorted, of course, but more twerpy power-pop than beautified grunge. And though Kurt Cobain obviously had it bad for the Beatles, the Vines are even more Fabulous, give or take a Marshall stack or two. For all its carefully modulated sound and fury, the album signifies mainly as a nerdy guide to pop-music history, full of tuneful choruses, memorable hooks, and smirking charm.
So it goes without saying that the Vines are now the neo-garage rockers to beat, miles ahead of their contemporaries by dint of a palpable desire to remodel the form for a milieu soundtracked to Moby, not Moby Grape. By contrast, there’s something nearly puritanical about the likes of the Strokes, the Hives, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, groups that sound duty-bound to record in antiquated studios with wet-shoe-box acoustics in an age when any guitar-playing wage slave can snag a copy of Pro Tools down at the local
Of course, when the songs are there, no one’s going to complain—at least not much. But with just a handful of exceptions (the Strokes’ “Barely Legal” and the Hives’ “Hate to Say I Told You So” get my votes), the songs mostly haven’t been there, with many of these formally correct revivalists seeming awe-struck by their elders and feeling obliged not only to connect their musical dots, but also to do it with obsessive, painstaking precision.
Or maybe it’s just harder to write great pop tunes than it actually sounds. Either way, the Vines are having none of it. Gussied up nicely by well-credentialed knob-twiddler Rob Schnapf (helmsman for Beck and Elliot Smith, among others), the music they make is sonically alluring, dripping with lots of free-floating desire and stylized ennui, and stuck in no particular time frame. Sure, the boys are practiced at the art of aural deception—Can’t solo too well? Just up the fuzz!—but they also have considerable skill at crafting hooks that sometimes seem even better than the real thing.
The LP’s chunky title track, for instance, situates Highly Evolved deep inside the VU meter’s red zone, with the dynamic rhythm duo of bassist Patrick Matthews and drummer Hamish Rosser laying a chugging foundation for the din slathered on by Nicholls and fellow axman Ryan Griffiths. “My brother Bill/He work for the market/Life is an arrow/Oh, he is a target,” Nicholls intones in his satisfying growl, while the rest of the Vines howl like dingoes in the background. Granted, it’s an autopilot put-down, there more for the cool-sounding phonemes and the cooler-sounding attitude than the sense. But just when you think you’ve got the song’s in-yer-face-rawk idea down cold, Nicholls pastes in a roughed-up riff nicked from “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” which the band rides inventively, if way too briefly, straight through to the track’s abrupt end.
“Outtathaway!” follows suit, opening amid the sublime sounds of amplifier crackle and hiss (not to mention a suspiciously well-sculpted squall of feedback) before uncorking some call-and-response vocals and strummy chord changes. Nicholls once again supplies a requisite blistering lead, this time one that flirts with the bass line from “Taxman.” Just add three-part harmonies—which the Vines promptly do—and turn it up, dude: It’s the summer of grunge all over again. The psychedelicized “Sunshinin’” works similar magic with a low-in-the-mix melody, skronky guitars, and a percolating rhythm track that brings to mind that early IDM classic “Heart of Glass.”
Elsewhere, the boys look to prove their garage-rock bona fides by name-checking the movement’s sacrosanct ’60s: Highly Evolved includes a track called “1969” and another titled “Mary Jane,” as in…well, you know as in. Titular psychedelics aside, though, these numbers aren’t as retro as you might expect: The latter comes with a noisy, metallic chorus that approximates Nirvana’s crankiest sides, and the former is an epic, ’70s-style Bic-flicker dorky enough to make you hope it’s a joke—but catchy enough to make you think twice. “In the Jungle” and “Ain’t No Room” are similarly winning, psych-pop rompers that’ll have you longing for the day these 20-somethings discover Daydream Nation and really let loose a carbon-copied masterpiece.
Admittedly, there are some outright disappointments here. “Factory,” the track that inexplicably started it all for the Vines, begins as a misplaced, what-the-fuck? ska tune and goes downhill fast from there, via a vocal line borrowed from “No No Song”—Ringo’s worst post-Beatles moment—and a chorus that Kurt probably wouldn’t have even given to Courtney. And the band’s forays into power(-pop) balladry score just one hit (the piano-laced “Autumn Shade”) and two treacly misses (the plodding “Homesick” and the even more plodding “Country Yard,” which shoots for “Here, There, and Everywhere” ecstasy but settles instead for “Champagne Supernova” agony).
Low points included, though, Highly Evolved impresses as a coherent and incisive rock album at a time when both technology and nostalgia have resurrected the single as popular music’s pre-eminent form. It’s not the most revolutionary album ever, but sometimes you just want the new Get the Knack, not the new Nevermind. So go on, indulge yourself: Masturbation is sex with someone you love, after all, and Highly Evolved is a guaranteed good time. CP
The Vines perform Sunday, July 21, at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. For more information, call (202) 393-0930.