When the Australian garagesters the Vines landed in America in the summer of 2002, they arrived with a degree of hype that they couldn't possibly have lived up to. There's not a slam on Highly Evolved, their enjoyable debut that mixed an unabashed love for Beatles-esque pop with Nirvana's loud-quiet-loud template. Derivative, maybe (read: yes), but songs like "Get Free", "In the Jungle" and "Factory" proved that frontman Craig Nicholls and bandmates Patrick Matthews (bass), Hamish Rosser (drums) and Ryan Griffiths (guitar) could, regardless of hype, craft a catchy tune. I don't know what prompted the Fickle Finger of Fate to single out the Vines and decide that the band should be judged more harshly and have a heavier weight of expectation on their shoulders than any other garage band with only two albums under their belts, but that's how the die has been cast.
While picking on the Vines seems to be an unofficial sport in some critical circles -- some of it deserved, some cruel -- the band does deserve a fair review, one that would be afforded to any other band with a sophomore album. So then, Winning Days arrived in my mailbox accompanied by little fanfare. I opened the envelope and there's only a disc in a sleeve; no press kit, no glossy photos, no photocopied articles and reviews. For the Vines, this time around -- and perception be damned -- it's about the music. It's a shame, then, that Winning Days fails to build upon any gains made by Highly Evolved.
On their debut, the band proved they had a pretty cool record collection, and Winning Days suggests they haven't added to it since 2002. Most of Winning Days could easily have fit on the earlier album, and in some spots, if you haven't listened to Highly Evolved in a while you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to that album. I don't consider them rock saviors, but is it asking too much of a band to show a little musical growth? The snark in me wants to dust off an old Highly Evolved review and substitute new song titles for the old one (i.e., "Autumn Shade" is now "Autumn Shade II". I wish I was kidding.), but that wouldn't be fair to the band. As it is, Winning Days, despite being an exercise in maintaining the musical status quo, isn't entirely without its charms.
Opener "Ride" showcases the band at their catchiest -- a sub-three-minute tune bursting with guitar hooks and Rosser's propulsive drumming, and boasting an incendiary guitar solo that lets Nicholls flail around onstage when performing the song live. (My buddy Josh asked me the following when we recently caught the band in Boston: Is there a worse job in rock than being Nicholls' guitar tech? God -- see how easy it is to pick on the band?) And discerning ears will find the Vines' lone expansion of their sonic palette to be a dabbling of psychedelia, though it barely runs deeper than the swirls of the Nuggets-reject album cover. Sometimes the experiment works -- check out the buzzing guitar on "Evil Town" -- and sometimes it doesn't. Both "Amnesia" and "Sun Child" drone on for four-plus minutes each (as if the song titles weren't enough of a red flag) and putting them back-to-back on the album only serves to clog up the album's b-side.
And there's a realization I've come to that I hope the band arrives at soon. As viscerally thrilling and MTV-friendly tunes like "Ride" and "Fuck the World" (title notwithstanding) are, the band is at their best on midtempo rockers such as the pastoral title track and the (yes) Beatles-esque "She's Got Something to Say". Those songs sound more heartfelt than the whisper-to-a-scream paint-by-numbers tracks "Animal Machine" and "TV Pro". When they ease up on the gas pedal, they tend to do alright for themselves, even if it's not the cool thing to do. This is just one man's opinion, but rather than trying to keep up with the Cascablancases and Whites of this world, Nicholls and company would do well to follow the career trajectory of fellow Aussies You Am I, who've been cranking out kickass roots/garage for nearly 10 years. So maybe Michel Gondry won't direct their videos anymore (as he did for "Ride"), but the Vines would have a much more organic, less fraught-by-hype career. I'll grant the band a mulligan with Winning Days, but if Album Number Three is nothing more than Highly Evolved III: Winning Days II: Electric Boogaloo, I won't be so kind.