Rediscovering: The Vines’ Highly Evolved

I like garage rock. Certainly, some of the most high octane discs in my collection come from those precious few years at the start of the 2000s where rock music was supposed to go back to basics. You’ve heard the bands–your Stripes’ and your Strokes’ and the like. One band out of the lot, however, was hyped like no other and fell off like no other, and after today’s Rediscovering, I can’t say I’m too surprised.

The Vines' Highly Evolved

They can’t all be winners, lads. Let’s talk about the 2002 debut of The Vines, Highly Evolved.

My previous experience, if any

I’m gonna get free. I’m gonna get free. I’m gonna get free–RIDE INTO THE SUN. So goes “Get Free”, probably The Vines’ most lasting song, and goddamn it’s not hard to see why. The riff, like all good guitar riffs, barely resembles a guitar, the song bounces off all the right walls without disintegrating, it’s catchy, and the drum work (from none other than session giant Joey “that beast on that Beck album” Waronker) is top notch. If even half of Highly Evolved was like this song, I’d be happy.

The history lesson

The Vines started as a little hobby project between a few friends in the middle of Australia in the mid-90s. It wasn’t until 2001 when they finally hit their first big break, leading to that classic rock band overhype line: “the next Nirvana”. And just like the story goes, The Vines never quite managed to stay on top of it. Chalk it up to what you will–drugs, literal autism–but the signs of a fluke were always there. As amusing as that Letterman performance is, it’s not exactly good, and neither was their performance in a mock-competition with The Hives at the VMAs. But regardless of my thoughts on them live, is their album any good?

Well?

Before I answer that, I’ll make this clear: I was not expecting this album to be this tentative. If you were expecting a disc of fucking constant barnburners, I’ll list off the midtempo schlock for you right now: “Autumn Shade”. “Sunshinin'”. “Homesick”. “Country Yard”. “Mary Jane”. I’ve heard heartland rock with more balls than this. The benefit to a slower song is generally that you can pack more emotion, feeling, texture, and meaning into a song than with a louder one, but I’ll be damned if I can smell anything other than a vague 60s psychedelia influence on these.

Out of the lot, “Country Yard” is definitely the best, but even then, it doesn’t seem like The Vines are too assured of what they’re doing–a soft, meaningful tune with a fucking screamy vocal overdub sitting under the main vocal towards the end. Not to say the pure “rock” songs are much better. “Outtathaway” isn’t especially fast and certainly not pounding or energetic enough to justify its sound, and “Factory” could be a novelty dance song with a different vocal cut over it. The energy seems so calculated that it’s hard not to hear Highly Evolved as the work of slick marketers on a young, local non-sensation.

Normally, even the bad bands in the Rediscovering pile have some kinda sonic calling card, but after my first listen, I couldn’t recall a single lyric or melody outside of “Get Free”. After a fairly decent (if totally unfinished) opener in “Highly Evolved”, the fact that this album goes so slow and flavorless is pretty inexcusable. The thing about garage rock is that it’s what else you add to the mix that makes your album stand out. The Hives succeed because of their theatrics, melodic and tight enough to make the arrogance work, and The Black Keys are much stronger blues traditionalists than any of their peers were.

I’d say “all Highly Evolved brings is noise”, but fuck, a lot of what’s here isn’t even particularly noisy. The few “freakouts” on the album, like the outro of “Ain’t No Room”, sound so clean and neatly packaged in production that they mostly just sound like [stuff happening] to me.

Like a lot of other middling records, this one’s mostly good for reminding me of better ones. The outro to “Autumn Shade” sounds like a very out of place reference to the outro of “Karma Police”, and “Country Yard” just makes me wanna listen to Dandy Rule OK, somewhere around “Lou Weed” or maybe “Green” from …The Dandy Warhols Come Down. Gratuitous references to better music aside, the thing just reminds me that The Hives deserved the big stage at the VMAs way more.

Are you keeping it?

Uh-uh.

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