Tangled Up in The Vines

The Vines haven’t been on anyone’s radar for going on close to twenty years. But every time I think back to NME’s saviors of rock, I get this weird feeling, this thought that no other band has been treated so poorly by the mainstream music press. The Vines certainly aren’t the most obscure band, but the argument can be made that they’ve had their career tarnished and forced into obscurity pretty early on. But then, two albums into their discography and shit hit the fan from a combination of negative reviews and lead singer Craig Nicolls’ erratic behavior. So I guess I’m just questioning were they ever really that bad?

Overnight sensations, touted by the music press as the saviors of rock, The Vines received every ounce of hype typical of the British music press. The rough and rowdy members graced countless magazines and had hits that crossed over into America, which always seems like an unattainable achievement for an Australian band. It’s easy to see in hindsight why the band was as covered as they were; a combination of photogenic poster-boy style and unpredictable backstage excess made The Vines entertaining to watch. The burn was quick, and it was part of the enjoyment. Highly Evolved, the band’s debut, hit at the same time as other garage-rock revival bands, but besides the radio play of “Get Free,” The band never carried the same cultural weight as peers like The Strokes or Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

This is where the critical backlash comes in, while adored by publications like NME, more critical and damaging reviews came from the likes of Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, who besides middling reviews seemed to attack the band’s sincerity and authenticity, “I picture Craig Nicholls and Ryan Griffiths in some lavish London hotel suite at this very moment trying to figure out some way to glue the TV to the ceiling.” wrote Chris Dahlen for a 4.1/10 Pitchfork review. Dahlen continues to blast the band as devoid of any true personality. Like every other review, he compares The Vines’ sound to a mixture of The Beatles’ pop songwriting buried beneath the mimicry of mimicry Nirvana’s grunge styling. As if The Strokes or Yeah Yeah Yeahs weren’t just rehashing 1970s post-punk in a comparable fashion. Before finishing with the notion that The Vines covered too much ground without having the experience to back it up. The takeaway – The Vines weren’t cool enough; one wonders if the hype machine had anything to do with such mediocre coverage.

Fast forward two years later, and their sophomore album, Winning Days, tanked critically; even NME, seemingly embarrassed by their own hype, grew tired of the game and awarded the album a 5/10. It’s as though every music publication grew tired of Craig Nicholls stage antics, yelling at his audience, assaulting photographers, truly erratic behavior that painted the band as spoiled brats, even band members had enough, after one sour performance, Patrick Matthews quit the band on the spot and wouldn’t return except for a brief stint in 2018. Once again, Pitchfork panned the album and gave Winning Days a 2.7/10 in a since-deleted Cris Ott review. Winning Days wasn’t a huge leap forward for the band, featuring the same mixture of pop and rock as their debut. Ultimately listening back to Winning Days in 2021, It simply isn’t anything other than a fun record. Does it need to be anything more? “Ride” still carries the carefree swagger it did in 2004, “Autumn Shade II” is possibly Nicholls at his most effective as a singer. The title track is a thoughtfully penned ballad and probably Winning Days‘ most potent moment. The second half features songs that are simply catchy and don’t require much thought to enjoy. I think this might be The Vines’ most reliable quality; what was written off as posturing or a grabbag of regurgitated influences simply was a youthful and enthusiastic band. When a band titles a song “Fuck the World,” I feel like they didn’t take themselves as seriously as critics did.

If there was one positive to come from The Vines’ success and their quick decline, Craig Nicholls, undiagnosed at the time, was able to get help for his mental health. Due to the keen eye of their backstage personnel, a member of the band’s crew noticed the signs, and in 2004, Craig Nicholls was diagnosed and treated for Asperger’s syndrome. Suddenly, Nicholls’ erratic behavior, while not justifiable, was at least understandable. It also makes his mistreatment by the press a bit cringy under the intense light of 2021. Mainly for the band being attacked more for the personality of Nicholls than the music.

Having his mental well-being brought to the light didn’t make things any easier for the band, though, which is unfortunate since Nicholls made such a conscious effort to improve his behavior, the frontman made a serious change to his diet, and marijuana intake, the erratic tension of their live shows became more focused. Nicholls, in control of his health, focused his attention solely on writing and recording. As a result, 2006’s Vision Valley, their third and last album for Capitol Records, featured more relaxed songwriting and the delivery of a healthier frontman. Songs like “Don’t Listen to the Radio” is one of the band’s strongest pop-rock moments, featuring a masterful loud/soft dynamic. The country-tinged title track continues in the vein of the band’s earlier ballads but adds a little experimentation in sound. Whereas “Nothin’s Comin'” and “Dope Train” are the sort of ballsy no shits given rock angst that Nicholls seemed so apt at churning out. The closing “Spaceship” is a mini six-minute epic of Pink Floyd-inspired space balladry. Listening back, only “Futuretarded” is an unfortunately titled sign of why so many loved to hate The Vines. As a whole, though, Vision Valley remains a catchy continuation of their hybrid grunge-pop style. Unfortunately, however, for all his hard work, the album still crashed upon release, notwithstanding a few gains in critical reviews, and resulted in the band being dropped, a greatest hits compilation released by Capitol followed two years later, almost as a way of boxing up The Vines’ smeared legacy.

2008 would see The Vines’ Melodia, their debut for independent Ivy League Records, followed by Future Primitive in 2011. Both albums featured the short, catchy guitar-driven songwriting of their first three albums. With each release, the critical coverage decreased. While still generating a few positive appraisals, it was obvious that The Vines were a relic of a past musical movement. A buzz band that had outlived their fifteen minutes of fame. 2014’s double album, Wicked Nature wasn’t so much an expansion on the band’s sound as it was just a double serving of their brand of fuzzed-out rock. In Miracle Land followed in 2018 and to date remains the band’s last release.

This is where The Vines cease to be a mainstream entity; thirteen years after their major label days, various lineup changes, and four studio albums, searching for The Vines will result in inquiries of whether or not the band is still together. Sure enough, yes; The Vines are still a band, though Craig Nicholls remains the only constant member. Sadly, these four albums don’t make it easy to reappraise the band, as their direction hasn’t changed much in the two decades since Highly Evolved. Formulaic as they are, each will contain a handful of guitar-driven rockers and an equal amount of syrupy ballads. However, peppered throughout each are joyous flashes of brilliance where the band reaches a groove that highlights their talent, a still untapped potential. These carefree and catchy songs are what Nicholls is good at, but it does make The Vines a rather unadventurous band; however, I’m sure their devoted fanbase is happy as long as Nicholls still releases music.

So, here we are in 2021, when the past decade has seen the poptimist critical reappraisal of emo, pop-rock, new-age, and mainstream pop where former critical punching bags have become lauded unsung influencers. Enya hasn’t so much as taken her seat as the queen of ambient as critics have finally warmed up to that idea, throwing decades of terrible reviews in the trash bin. Mainstays of TRL are now looked upon with unashamed zeal. Is it too much to ask that we revisit a band that could have had a more substantial career if not maligned by the music press? I’m not saying Nicholls’ behavior didn’t affect the band’s negative press but taking the shit out of a person’s behavior when mental health played a contributing factor wouldn’t pass today. Due to the ignorance of an earlier time, maybe a little positive attention is overdue for The Vines persevering through all the shit thrown their way.

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