The Vines: Susanna Howe
Tom Sinclair
March 26, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Winning Days

Current Status
In Season

We gave it a B

Ever since MTV pitted them against the Hives in a so-called battle of the bands at the network’s 2002 Video Music Awards, a lot of folks have been calling the Vines a garage-rock band. But this Australian quartet never quite fit that mold. To label them a garage band is, at best, a gross oversimplification and, at worst, a bald-faced canard. After all, the old-school garage cognoscenti are a fairly tradition-minded bunch who look askance at music that strays too far from 1966 production values or aims for a degree of sophistication much beyond that of, say, ”Louie Louie.”

Even a cursory listen to the Vines’ 2002 debut, ”Highly Evolved,” reveals an ambitious group not afraid to mix and match styles, including post-grunge bashfests, fey psychedelia, and unabashedly pretty pop songs. Winning Days, the group’s sophomore effort, should help to move the Vines farther away from the garage ghetto and establish them as what they are: a savvy young modern-rock band with a better-than-average grasp of musical history. Singer Craig Nicholls alternately scalds your ears with his bratty howl and lulls you into a trance via his contemplative mewling and misty-eyed musing.

”Ride,” the opener, is a bouncy exercise in aggressive guitar wrangling that feels a trifle rote. ”Evil Town” better embodies the peripatetic feel of the album, kicking off with a portentous heavy metal motif before morphing into a plaintive, moody ballad that puts you in mind of an Alice in Chains drug dirge.

If the Vines sometimes seem to reference early-’90s Seattle bands, they just as often evoke the sounds of ’60s and ’70s greats. Scale back the pumped-up guitars of ”She’s Got Something to Say” and you have a catchy little ditty that might have served as a tidy B side for the Beatles or the Byrds back in the day. ”Rainfall” pays subtle melodic homage to the Kinks’ ”Celluloid Heroes.” ”Autumn Shade II,” meanwhile, offers gentle fingerpicking, hushed singing, and jarring lyrics: ”I’m beginning to need all that I can’t have/I’m succeeding to speak like I’m f — -ing mad.”

Indeed, despite their penchant for rocking like demons, these guys have a real soft spot for folk-hearted sappiness. So much of the album features chiming and jangling acoustic guitars that it could be argued the Vines are as indebted to James Taylor and Nick Drake as they are to the Seeds and Slade. There’s something almost admirable in the band’s implicit insistence that they can, in fact, comfortably be both oranges and apples.

Or can they? The Vines choose to go out hard, as if to backpedal from all the puffy stuff, closing with a flailing screamathon called ”F — the World.” Though it almost surely wasn’t the band’s intent, the tune functions as pure parody. After its final notes have faded, it’s ”Winning Days”’ softer songs that bubble up to replay themselves in your head. Personal to the Vines: Wimp trumps tough guy; remember that equation, fellas.

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