With a blistering single (“Get Free”) and the stoned antics of singer-guitarist Craig Nicholls, it was no surprise when Sydney, Australia’s Vines became a strong candidate for biggest hype of 2002. One cannot deny the precise power of a song like “Get Free,” and the group is certainly the most stylistically varied of the new century’s garage marauders, but something is still missing. What the Vines bring to the table — highly audible melodies resting on a bed of post-grunge tension — is tasty enough, but it ends up less like heartfelt art and more like a mere regurgitation of the band members’ influences.
Nicholls, bassist Patrick Matthews and drummer David Olliffe raid the best cellars in town on the band’s debut, Highly Evolved. (Olliffe was replaced by Hamish Rosser after the album was finished, and acoustic guitarist Ryan Griffiths joined soon after.) The Beatles’ allure — mainly of the George Harrison ethereal variety — is honored (“Autumn Shade,” “Country Yard”), and some authentic-sounding Nirvana-isms pop up in “Get Free” and the snare-heavy “Outtathaway!” Then there’s the Big Star harmony in “Homesick,” and flashes of Oasis and Radiohead just for good measure. Producer Rob Schnapf (Beck, Verbena) fills out the sound so much that Nuggets-inspired rock like “Sunshinin'” and “1969” (“It’s 1969 in my head”) are more engorging than engaging.
Highly Evolved is at its best when the band ventures into the unlikely land of ska. “Ain’t No Room,” an otherwise uneventful number, is saved by a skankin’ beat, wobbly guitar and a vocal approach that resembles Fingerprintz or early XTC; “Factory,” the most inspired track (and a breakout hit in the UK), is straight-up ska-rock with feedback bursts and an “Oh/Hey” chorus to stir you out of your bong-hit haze. The album is at its worst when Nicholls’ incomprehensible outbursts, to which he is overly inclined, become strident. After that, the whole thing just won’t get over fast enough.
For a start, the Vines are excellent conductors for their influences, especially the Cobain kind, and Highly Evolved represents grunge’s perseverance and validity more astutely than such overly earnest rockers as Our Lady Peace. But on the slightly mythical and much ballyhooed neo-garage scene, these Aussies lack the singular vision of the Hives, the inventive fury of the White Stripes and the kitschy-cool clothes of the Strokes.