100 for 2000 – #27. The Vines – Highly Evolved

To end another wonderful decade of great music, I’m going to write about ten albums from each of the last ten years, that are either great, or hold some sort of personal significance. A musical kiss off to 00s.

2002 – #7. The Vines – Highly Evolved
(Capitol)

There is a lot to say about the Vines. They were the great white hope for a moment there, and I totally believed it. Then they got mangled up, came out as something different, salvaged a great record in Highly Evolved from the ruins, and then went further into freefall.

This is a record and a band that most people I know hate fiercely. I just want to acknowledge this up front, and that there is no hope for a lot of people to ever like this record. This story is not excuses or reasons. It’s just a story.

The Vines story started at the radio station I was working at back in 2000ish. That station, FBi, had a Vines live session (the drummer’s brother was a regular gig goer, passed the tape to someone, and it got to us). The tale told is the guys at Ivy League Records heard this live session and tracked the band down.

I’d known the guys from around. I knew the drummer brother guy. Some of them would come into the record shop I worked in, and we’d chat. I’d see the singer at gigs and we’d chat about Muse. Just normal, life stuff. Yeah, they kind of had that weird/shy indie musician thing, but then again, so did most people you might see at the Hopetoun Hotel on a Wednesday night. We were all freaks.

So, you see, they had this tape. This awesome, awesome tape. Recorded at home. Raw as fuck. Drums sound like a train hitting a paper bag. Mixed so badly that the vocal harmonies were a spooky, psych mess. Songs that went for a minute, and if it had a chorus it was likely sung twice only. The songs were about weird things, some anthemic, some just weird about wildlife and gardens. In short, it was brilliant.

There were a few of us that thought so. As a favour to the Ivy Leaguers, I took that tape and put it on CD (I was an early owner of a CD burner). I also made a little cover. A later, slightly more polished set of demos, with some new songs were recorded, and at the end we had this double CD of demos, all of which I thought were brilliant, that was being sent out to people.

Nobody liked it. I remember one night, one of the Ivy Leaguers saying to me that they don’t know how they can keep the label running, even into tomorrow. This is WITH the Vines on the books. Eventually, we gave the demos to Engine Room music, a new company, and somehow, someway, they got the Vines a deal.

In America.

Where they loved them. Capitol were wild about the band. I mean, yeah, they were young and whatnot but they were exciting – and exotic. This was well before the Strokes or the White Stripes became big. So, they were sent to America to record the album.

All the while the legend of these demos grew back home, and the Vines started gigging regularly. At a You Am I gig, we made up some 4 track samplers of the demos and handed them to anyone who cared. (Andy Cassell, the smart man that he was, realised a lot of money could be saved by making the artwork just a stamp)

Even to this day, people tell me how I handed them a copy of that Vines demo. When the band was at their peak, these were going for hundreds of dollars on Ebay. I’m pretty sure I still have a few at home. Even more interesting is when someone pulls out the whole 2CD set that I originally made in my bedroom with my colour printer. That still happens as well. Cos, you know, we were there when this band was special.

Rusty from You Am I had a new label that just did 7”s. The Vines released a 7” on there that was also, once, worth big bucks. It was that CD2 of demos, recorded at Zen studios. The songs were sounding so great live. Drown the Baptists, Winning Days, Get Free. I remember one show where Craig did Sunchild solo acoustic.

So what was so great about these demos? Part of it was what was going on with music at the time. Rap-metal was big. In Australia, this electro-rock best summed up by Alex Lloyd or Regurgitator were huge. And these guys were young, thrashy, pure. And then they started covering Outkast. And Teenage Fanclub. Fuck man, you should have been there.

But things were getting darker behind the scenes. Craig, the singer, had a problem that no one would know about for years to come. His Asperger’s was the cause, but the symptoms were scarier. Erratic behavior, bouts of going missing, and some of the shows came a little too close to falling apart.

Three school friends left for LA to record a debut album. Only two were left by the end. Drummer, David, sick of it all, left the band. It effectively ended the Vines Mark 1, the one that us secret few really loved.

They got in Rob Schnapf, on the strength of his work with indie masters Guided By Voices. Some session drummers straightened the songs out, and the pristine production lost a lot of the lo-fi atmosphere. For me, this is like Monty Python at the Hollywood Bowl – the sketches are great, but why are you just doing them exactly the same but worse?

(As an aside, another label, XL, one of the biggest indie labels in the world, just missed out on working with the Vines. And their idea was to put the demos out as the album. History may have been so different. Especially in the slightly more caring hands of an indie)

And, it has to be said, thanks to the Strokes, the album was a hit. Washed up in the new rock hype, NME fell in love with them – yet, so few of the songs actually fit the narrow genre of ‘New Rock’. Get Free was all over the radio, world wide. The Vines had arrived.

I do like this record. A lot. It was still very much the Vines. They had the hippie element – that naive world view of sunshine and gardens, almost an 8 year old cartoon of the world. But there was the 8 year old nightmare as well. Outtathaway and Highly Evolved are paranoid classics.

But as they sing themselves, it’s 1969 in their heads. Along with the best songs from their second album (Winning Days, Sunchild that are on those very first demos etc), it’s is a jammy, proggy style of music that dominated their live sets. Dandy Warhols were mentioned a lot. I know this put some people off, expecting Strokes II.

The big budget recording brought out some brilliant stuff. Factory now cut tough with it’s jagged guitar sound. Best of all is Homesick, with a proper piano and all the bells and whistles. Sunshinin’ just simmers along so nicely. We thought it would be big – and it was.

And then it died. Public violence and breakdowns, losing Patrick the founding bassplayer, a lackluster second record… but all that are sidelines to the bigger problem: the world moved on.

I thought Craig was a genius. The musicial ideas I heard on those demos were so far out. Highly Evolved brought out one side of them, and radio and press leaned towards the rockers. A lot of those great demos became b-sides. And it took another crazy Australian guy would make the kind of crazy albums I thought Craig would make.

There is so much regret, mistakes and missteps in the Vines early story. A really good album came of it. Some lives were changed forever. But, god, what could have been…

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