Forget about Jay-Z, Elton John, and the rest of the music industry's December shopping-mall bait. The Year in Rock is already over, and the story of the year is the Strokes, the Hives, the White Stripes, the Doves, and the Vines—all bands that parlayed clever rock scholarship, good looks, monosyllabic names, and a retro alternative sound rooted in the '70s and '80s into critical and commercial success. Yes, 2002 was the year of the Vowel Bands.
With nothing else to get particularly excited about, and the rock audience getting older, and younger, and smaller, and more fractured with every passing year, industry machers predictably swooned. Pure genius! The new Velvet Underground! A young Iggy Pop! The Vowel Bands were the perfect nostalgia trip for listeners who grew up on college radio, and to the non-college-radio crowd they were edgy and new. Even the worst critical snobs found themselves compelled to admit that seeing the White Stripes live in a small club might be worth the $25 ticket—even if the show would never rank up there with the classic Replacements shows of their youth, when Tommy Stinson got drunk and fell off the stage.
Did the Vowel Bands make good music? It wasn't bad. No one spends that many hours studying the lyrics of Julian Casablancas, the babe-magnet lead singer for the Strokes. On the other hand, it was nice to hear so much indie-sounding music so high up the charts.
My own pick for the Best of the Vowel Bands is definitely the Vines: the most naive-sounding and overtly commercial of this year's unusually diligent crop of top new bands. Plenty of credit for Highly Evolved, their debut record, is no doubt due to the team of studio production wizards assembled by Capitol Records, including producer Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith, Guided by Voices, Beck, Pavement, Foo Fighters); Pete Thomas, a founding member of Elvis Costello's band the Attractions; Joey Waronker (son of the legendary music executive Lenny Waronker, and a top studio drummer who has played with Beck and R.E.M.); and Andy Wallace (the guy who mixed Nirvana). Those guys could make anyone sound like, well, anyone. Name a rock 'n' roller of the past 50 years—Chuck Berry, or the Kinks, or Michael Stipe—and Capitol Records' all-star production team can probably deliver a pretty decent digital facsimile.
That's not to say that the Vines are slouches. Where the Strokes seem to be in it for the photo shoots, the Vines seem determined to be rock stars. They are also reasonably talented musicians, who write good old-fashioned hooks—or steal them—for good old-fashioned rock songs. As a result, Highly Evolved now stands a mere 12,000 units away from the magic 500,000 threshold required for earning a gold record. So go buy it. That's my advice. The Vines deserve a gold record as much as any band in the business—especially this year.
As for the music itself, the inevitable Radiohead influence comes through in the conceptually intricate vocal arrangements that have been constructed for Craig Nicholls, the Vines' yawping, high-cheekboned, skinny, tracksuit- and T-shirt-wearing, model-handsome lead singer and guitarist. What you hear in the Vines' music is the sound of a skinny white Australian kid who spent his suburban adolescence alone in his room listening to ancient music from the '60s through mushroomlike headphones. A real Kurt Cobain-like personality, as Capitol Records' team of crack publicists relentlessly intones to anyone who will listen, Nicholls is also an obviously talented vocalist, which is rare in this or any other year.
It is also fair to say that Nicholls' vocal talents are much more impressive on Highly Evolved than they are ever likely to be on stage. When I saw the Vines this summer at the Mercury Lounge, a smaller club in New York, Nicholls was so nervous and generally keyed up that he couldn't force enough air out of his throat to actually sing for the first four minutes that he stood on stage. He moved his lips and nothing came out. Then he whispered. His voice broke. Once he got started, he sounded like a cat stuck in a tree, and then he tried and failed to play his guitar behind his back. He was a spaz.
But that isn't to say that the songs haven't stayed with me. Highly Evolved is actually a pretty good facsimile of an old-fashioned classic rock 'n' roll album, right down to the fact that all the best songs are on what in ancient times would have been referred to as Side 1; Side 2 is mostly well-intentioned filler. The Vines' music is thankfully free of the pedantic rock scholarship of most Brit-type rockers. Fans of the Strokes' rather anodyne version of pseudo-Velvets punk will enjoy the title track; personally, I prefer the dreamy, Oasis-like riffs on "Autumn Shade," which features a nice vocal take on the phrase " Keep my head up"—proving, if nothing else, that four words, followed by a slow, simple, four-note solo, is still enough to make a pretty decent rock song. The hit "Outtathaway" relies on a desperate, manic vocal that takes flight from the phrase "I get/ what I want"—the cry of an affection-starved child. The entire lyric content of "Get Free" is pretty much contained in the title—it's a rousing teen anthem that mirrors the emotion of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" without any of the wit or self-loathing. Then again, considering that my own vote in the contest for the greatest lyric in rock 'n' roll history is split between the Beatles "Yeah, yeah, yeah!" and Kurt Cobain's "yeah," I can hardly say there is anything wrong with rock songs that live or die on a single phrase.
Besides, Nicholls' abject desperation for good old-fashioned, straightforward rock 'n' roll stardom is part of what makes the Vines so appealing. In search of a decent lick, any lick, they steal shamelessly from everybody—the Beatles, Wings, Nirvana, the Lemonheads, Radiohead, Blue Oyster Cult. But their favorite source appears to be a balding, paranoid rocker whose influence many rock songwriters feel but few will admit to: W. Axl Rose. The piano part in the Vines' "Homesick" ("I left my home, yeah, yeah/ Without my phone") comes from Axl's bombastic masterpiece "November Rain." "In the Jungle" is an obvious homage to Axl's "Welcome to the Jungle" on Appetite for Destruction, an album that appears to have been as popular in Australia as it was in the rest of the world through the mid-'90s.
The fact that the Vines are honest enough to admit to their forbidden passion for Axl Rose's greasy, unfashionable brand of rock makes them seem only more lovable. As musicians, the Vines stay comfortably within their limits. They never try to do too much, which makes them the perfect counterpart to their manic frontman, who as he gets older will probably mellow into a difficult old pro, like the Kinks' Ray Davies, muttering addled nonsense to himself on stage and spending the rest of his days in a terrycloth bathrobe.