Highly Evolved is everything a debut album from a great band should be: far from perfect but never a wasted mistake. Like many bands on their first official full-length, The Vines are sorely lacking in originality. The best moments all faintly echo the ghosts of other bands. But unlike say, Puddle of Mudd, or countless other grunge clones cluttering the radio today, The Vines don't come off as content to play the tribute band. Rather, I get the feeling that The Vines are trying to convert their obvious influences into something wholly unique -- even if they're still in that awkward middle phase of puberty.
It's true what you may have read about the Vines in the fawning British publications. Yes, they do sound a bit like Nirvana. Frontman Craig Nichols rumbling cadence often eerily mimics Cobain's, especially on fast-paced rockers like "Highly Evolved" and "Get Free". And they quite frequently tip their collective hat to the Beatles with their simple yet melodic constructions. But perhaps more than anything else, I hear a distinct fascination with Supergrass, untold nights in the bedroom strumming along to "Late in the Day" off of In It for the Money. Of course, none of these influences are bad; in fact, they're all uniformly great. The problem, of course, is that if you tread to closely to these recognized and revered paradigms, you're almost assured of dashing the audience's heightened expectations.
The Vines biggest problem at this stage is one that plagues many good young bands: they know how classic records are supposed to sound, but they have absolutely no idea what a classic record from The Vines should sound like. Highly Evolved is a strange mix of songs that, while varied, doesn't boast much personality of its own. The title track and opener is a pleasant blast of Nevermind-era Nirvana. "Autumn Shade" is trademark Coombes & Co. circa In It For the Money. And "1969" is a distorted sound collage that wouldn't be out of place on the back end of Swervedriver's 99th Dream. But despite all the impressive reference points, Highly Evolved never reveals what The Vines are all about. It's as though the group isn't quite confident enough to lend its own voice to the proceedings.
As far as the rest of the mistakes go, the production on the first single, "Get Free", easily ranks up there as one of the most egregious. Andy Wallace may have been a good choice to mix their debut single in order to get commercial airplay, but the song winds up sounding like pea soup. (Wallace is best known for his mixing work on Nirvana's Nevermind. Surprise, surprise.) It might as well be the work of any other guitar band buzzing away on the local alternative radio dial. Wallace and his disciples have mixed so many tracks in this overly-processed manner, it's no wonder so many of the songs on rock radio are interchangeable. To hear how "Get Free" should have sounded, I recommend logging onto Audiogalaxy (or whatever file-sharing service is currently in working order) and downloading the two-minute and two-second version of the song recorded for The Cornerstone Player Volume. There's simply no comparison. There are also a couple of missteps on the lyrical front. Particularly cringe-worthy is the opening of "Country Yard", which begins with the line "I'm tired of feeling sick and useless" before it settles down into its mid-tempo groove.
Despite the aforementioned issues, Highly Evolved still comes out well ahead. The leisurely, lilting melodies of "Mary Jane" and "Homesick" are pure summertime ecstasy while taut rockers like "Sunshinin" and "Ain't No Room" prove that The Vines are perfectly capable of turning up the volume without compromising their songwriting skills. And even though there are a few dry spells, you never get the sense that The Vines are resting on their laurels or that they're short on talent. Highly Evolved rarely stays down for long.
Of course, this review would hardly be complete without mention of The Strokes, to whom this Aussie foursome is often compared. (The NME dubbed them "The Australian Strokes" earlier this year.) Although their sound has very little in common with the pulsating punk-pop of the NYC upstarts, they definitely share a common aesthetic -- the vintage clothing, the magnetic frontman. But if Highly Evolved is any indication, The Vines may very well eclipse The Strokes in the long run. Is This It was certainly flawless for what it was, but the album didn't exactly pave the way to the future. If anything, Is This It was a dead end. The Strokes seem doomed to a career of repetition and diminishing returns. (The new songs that they've unveiled at recent gigs have only confirmed my suspicion.) The Vines, on the other hand, have left themselves plenty of creative possibilities with Highly Evolved and made enough headway to ensure that the album is a modestly successful venture on its own terms. Highly evolved is perhaps a premature declaration, but it's at least within their reach. As of right now, The Vines are an excellent, young band in search of a great album.