Vue are failing up. After two solid, if unspectacular, albums for Sub Pop (2000's self-titled debut and 2001's Find Your Home) the San Francisco-area quartet has landed with RCA, home to garage titans the Strokes. And rather than try to show up Julian Casablancas and Co. on their home turf, playing to their strengths of blues swagger and a laid-back West Coast sensibility, Vue has opted to instead kowtow to their label mates and pretend to be the Strokes Lite on their latest, Down for Whatever.
If the ennui-soaked album title weren't enough of a tip-off towards Vue's intentions, the music confirms any lingering suspicions. "Frozen Juice" finds lead singer Rex John Shelverton whining "I don't wanna do anything" while the rest of the band -- guitarist Jonah Buffa, bassist Jeremy Bringetto, keyboardist Jessica Ann Graves, and drummer Rafael Orlin -- get all jangly and garagey, just like a certain aforementioned NYC band. "Are You Restless" hints at more of the same, but at least it manages tot overcome the pretension of opening with the sound of an orchestra tuning up. And, of course, the title track is all Strokes, full of Buffa's big guitars and Graves's bouncy keyboards. Casablancas should be earning a co-writing credit with Shelverton for lines like "I'm down for whatever feels wrong".
When Vue aren't playing the Strokes card on Down for Whatever, they sound like they did on their earlier albums -- again, solid but unspectacular. "Pretty Shapes" is a piano-led dirge that, with some help from Buffa's harmonica, summons the ghosts of the blues better than one would expect from four Bay Area hipsters. Ditto for the shambling, deconstructed guitar blues of "Take Two Kisses". The song's a little too ponderous for its own good, but at least it's Vue being Vue.
And lest one think Down for Whatever's most representative tracks are B-minus-quality Strokes and leaden dirges, there's enough genuinely fun moments to provide a few toe taps for garage rock fans. Fuzzy, stripped down opener "She's Sweet" could pass for sunnier Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (a band who would provide a better template for Vue to copy than the Strokes, what with their shared locale and love of psychedelia, but that's one man's opinion), while Graves gets a chance to send her keyboard into orbit, matching Buffa's greasy guitar on the swaggering life-on-the-road ode "Babies Are for Petting". And the funky "Some Kids" celebrates the world's greatest party scenario: when parents go out of town and "you got a big house, then some kids are coming over!" Even if you've moved out of your folks' house and can throw parties whenever the hell you want, leave some space on the party mix CD for this one. This new-sound Vue could stand a few scuffs. "Do You Ever" boasts a big, fuzzy guitar solo, but its choruses are a little too polished for most garage tastes.
Often, Shelverton's voice calls to mind New York Dolls frontman David Johansen, one of the masters of blues and garage. Too bad the rest of the band doesn't follow suit on nondescript rockers like "Look Out for Traffic" and "Don't Be Yourself", written about time spent in Stockholm and Brooklyn, respectively, though it just as easily could be the other way around.
Vue seems resigned to playing a game of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" on Down for Whatever. Granted, that philosophy has led to a stint on a major label, magazine covers, and their highest-profile release yet, but the sound of a band capitulating isn't much to behold.