Album A&E – The Vines, ‘Highly Evolved’

Album A&E is a new series in which we revisit underrated or maligned albums and give them some much-needed rehabilitation. Here’s a look at The Vines’ explosive debut ‘Highly Evolved’.

With all the reminiscing following The White Stripes’ demise and The Strokes’ return, one name has been conspicuous by its absence.

Now judged somewhat as bit part players in that early 2000s scene some briefly called the New Rock Revolution – so much so they were recently bumped out a new reprint of the popular music criticism book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die (edited Robert Dimery) – The Vines were actually initially considered prime movers along with the other two heavyweights.

The Vines

While one overly hyperbolic NME review went too far by suggesting Casablancas and co were set to play John The Baptist to the Aussies’ Jesus, we should not forget that Craig Nicholls and his men managed some impressive feats in their brief reign, including a Rolling Stone cover (the first Australians since Men At Work in 1983 Wikipedia informs me), a top ten in the UK and a Number 11 in the US chart for ‘Highly Evolved’. And they even managed to effectively pinch ‘Miss Jackson’ from from Outkast by turning it into a set-closing cover that made the song their own.

However, The Vines never sat pretty in the early 2000s triumvirate of rock ‘n’ roll cool. Obviously a later diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome for Nicholls (which restricted their touring) and the confused second album ‘Winning Days’ limited their chances to match their peers, but even from the start the knives were out and the reactions to ‘Highly Evolved”s release was mixed.

The Village Voice was having none of it, suggesting the band “have trouble faking both the depth of feeling and the noisome mischief that good garage-punk requires” while Pitchfork credited The Vines’ ambition but gave the album just 4.1 and bemoaned its lack of “emotional depth”.

The Vines

Admittedly there is a limit to the emotional touchstones ‘Highly Evolved’ reaches over its 44 minutes, but what it does deliver is a fuzzed up, occasionally psychedelic joyride. Some records exists to challenge, some to be thought about. Well this one, with its bouts of unhinged hedonism, is there to simply enjoy. Kicking off with the blink-n-you’ll-miss-it title track, the rampant ‘Outtathaway!’ and the panoramic ‘Sunshinin”, ‘Highly Evolved’ opens with a sunkissed mix of slashing guitars and Nicholls’ raw but assured vocals, which seem to switch between breaths from a Kurt Cobain rage to Ray Davies charm and back again.

‘Homesick’, with its Mercury Rev-borrowing piano part, offers the first break from the album’s otherwise blistering pace, filling ‘Highly Evolved’ with heart-warming harmonies, before ‘Get Free’ storms in as the album’s take-no-prisoners centrepiece. Uncompromising and unrelenting, whether it’s heard on headphones or a dancefloor, it’s a track to bring out the berserker instincts in even the most timid.

‘Country Yard’ is a good attempt at a blown-out response to the preceding song, though sadly proves little other than that falsettos are not Nicholls’ strong point. Instead it’s the bouncy ‘Factory’, virtually a ska song with added indie guitar, that proved The Vines could function outside of top gear, while the meancing guitar and hypnotic vocals of ‘In The Jungle’ explain why there were so many Nirvana comparisons at the time.

Often accused of “tailing off”at the end, ‘Highly Evolved’ is not helped by ‘Mary Jane’, which, with its incredibly obvious pun title and painted-by-numbers psychedelia, briefly sees The Vines departing from the carefree spirit that makes their debut so endearing. However ‘Ain’t No Room’ ensures the album hits the highway with the top down one last time, while on ‘1969’ Nicholl’s finally channels his inner psychedelic priest with a heady mix of swirling harmonies and strong arm guitar (anyone else think its riff sounds a bit like Suede’s ‘Metal Mickey’?) before the album eventually flips out for its climax.

That The Vines never stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Jack and Julian ever again should be no surprise, they were busking it compared to the year both The White Stripes and The Strokes had in 2001 (‘White Blood Cells’ and ‘Is This It’ respectively). However, like both those bands, the Aussies did possess a knack for capturing the energy and spirit of a moment, and ‘Highly Evolved’ is full of sweat-inducing, high-octane highs.

Drenched in the Sydney sun, The Vines’ debut has enough subtleties thanks to its Kinks-ian touches to be more than a party album, but with its brake cords cut and the irresistible chaos it creates, it’s not a bad record to have around if there’s a party going on.

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