‘Highly Evolved’? ‘Winning Days’ is anything but...
[a]Vines[/a]’ debut, 2002’s ‘Highly Evolved’, is a great record, a bona fide rock’n’roll classic. Up there with [a]Oasis[/a]’ ‘Definitely Maybe’ and [a]Strokes[/a]’ ‘Is This It’. A record that galvanised music and announced the arrival of a potential rock hero in Craig Nicholls. If [a]White Stripes[/a] were king and queen of the rock’n’roll jungle and [a]Strokes[/a] close runners-up, [a]Vines[/a]’ highly strung insania definitely made them some kind of forerunner to, um, Peter Andre.
It was a debut that got a generation up stupidly early that spring Saturday morning in 2002 (remember?) to watch CD:UK. We were all blown away the first time we heard the single ‘Highly Evolved’ at just how concentrated the rage was (an abrupt 94 seconds). They were the rock band of 2002 and ‘Highly Evolved’ one of the rock debuts of the year.
And it didn’t matter that they were inconsistent live. The spectacle remained captivating because you just never knew what on Earth was going to happen next. At the root of this unpredictability lay the split personality, not only in the music, but in Craig himself. As [a]Vines[/a]’ manager put it to NME last week: “From the moment I saw Craig I thought he was a cross between Sid Vicious and post-Beatles-Lennon.”
On any particular night Craig Lennon may have produced a twinkling rendition of ‘Country Yard’. Or it might’ve been Craig Vicious taking it out on one of his bandmates like he did to bassist Patrick Matthews on ‘Later… With Jools Holland’ or the fisticuffs he had onstage with him in Boston.
But Nearly two years on from the debut and everything has changed. British rock bands like [a]Lostprophets[/a], [a]Snow Patrol[/a] and [a]Vines[/a] are in the proper pop charts. It’s them and others like that are capturing the public imagination, not Johnny Foreigners.
Initial reports out of Bearsville Studios in New York State (where ‘Winning Days’ was recorded) was that The [a]Vines[/a] were going to deliver an album that’d blow everyone away. After all, this was the first real [a]Vines[/a] LP (‘Highly Evolved’ employed lots of session musicians during its troubled recording). ‘Winning Days’ was the first time Craig, Patrick, Ryan Griffiths and Hamish Rosser – completely refreshed after a year of madness on the road – had made an LP together.
Craig himself has said in the past that he’s at his happiest when he’s in the studio. “I enjoy playing live but it’s a big headfuck for me” he told NME in June 2002 as he then obsessed about wanting to get back in the studio. The reason for his panic attack in the same interview was because he thought Capitol, his American record company were blocking him from doing so – he compared his plight to that of the [a]Music[/a]’ Brian Wilson – Brian didn’t tour so why should he?.
“I’ve just got so many songs going around in my head,” he confided to NME “I’m frightened I’ll forget them”.
So the stage was set for an extraordinary follow up with Craig Lennon in control. So why is this record such a disappointment? You don’t have to look much further than the track listing. Nearly half of the songs have been knocking around in one form or other for years. ‘Sun Child’ dates way back (a version even appeared on the B-side of the ‘Highly Evolved’ single) while ‘Winning Days’ and ‘Ride’ were demoed as early as April 1999. The former was re-recorded during the debut album sessions but didn’t make the cut then.
It’s not a problem that the songs are old though, although it’s disappointing and a touch bewildering that there are songs going around in Craig’s head that are pre-millennial, and it’s symbolic of the “that’ll do” laziness of ‘Winning Days’. It doesn’t get better than album opener and radio-grunge first single ‘Ride’. Starting off sounding like [a]Muse[/a], it goes on to menace like [a]Oasis[/a] if they used Hello Kitty handclaps and sounded like the Back To The Future high school dance.
At the other end of the record, ‘Sun Child’ is the most genuine moment. Starting subtly, almost country-like, it spirals towards ‘Champagne Supernova’-style proportions. We’re left with the impression that Nicholls is the ‘Sun Child’ and he’s leaving himself wide open. To be adored, hated whatever – take him or leave him because in ‘Sun Child’ he’s vulnerably yours.
These two tracks illustrate the two conflicting Craig Vicious and Craig Lennon strands at their best – the split that characterises the whole album. In the one corner you’ll find the former’s bloodletting, dysfunctional, snotty punk songs. The zzzzzzzzzz fast/slow dynamics of ‘Animal Machine’, the dreadful sub-‘In Utero’ ranting of ‘Evil Town’, the hollow ballsyness of ‘Fuck The World’.
The aforementioned ‘Ride’ is the only truly successful Craig Vicious tune. ‘Winning Days’ knows it too. The way they bury Nicholls’ vocals underneath the shiny LA rock production you can imagine at times they may as well be instrumentals. But it’s a wise move because there are only two interesting, if clumsy lyrics on the whole thing, both dealing with Craig’s state of mind.
‘Amnesia’s: “I cannot remember, my own sanity” and ‘Autumn Shade II’s “I’m succeeding to speak like I’m fucking mad”. These Craig Vicious songs smack of directionless blowing off of steam. There’s nothing in the class of ‘Get Free’, ‘Outthaway’ or even ‘Factory’. Occasionally it’s actually ugly. ‘Evil Town’ is such a dirge it induces cringes of Office-like proportions.
Over on the other side of the record – the psychedelic, Craig Lennon side – (stop to check out the passable ‘TV Pro’ along the way) you’re on more agreeable ground. The harmless ‘Winning Days’ and the pastorally inseparable ‘Rainfall’ and ‘Amnesia’. It’s, y’know, pleasant. So while ‘…Days’ is more agreeable in psychedelic form, crucially even then there is no progress.
‘Autumn Shade II’ is case in point. Craig Nicholls loves the shade (he also loves rain (‘Rainfall’) and sun (‘Sun Child’) too. Well into the shade he is. We know this because, on the sequel to ‘Highly Evolved”s excellent ‘Autumn Shade’, Craig dribbles on ages about it. “Look through me ‘cos I am a trance-filled wren”, he seems to ramble. Ooof.
Whereas on ‘Highly Evolved’ Craig Vicious and Craig Lennon had a challenging but ultimately successful marriage, on ‘Winning Days’ the relationship is irreconcilable. All this and, ultimately, there seems to be a hollowness, a lack of soul, an empty Big Mac carton where this album’s heart should be.
In following up their classic debuts [a]Oasis[/a] went supersonic with ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?’ while, in contrast, [a]Strokes[/a] refined their sound for ‘Room On Fire’,‘Winning Days’ does neither. It retreads the same terrain as its predecessor without getting anywhere near its heights. ‘Highly Evolved’? ‘Winning Days’ is anything but.
Get ‘Winning Days’ at the NME Shop