2004 / Music

Review: Vines, Walkmen Lay Claim To Garage-Rock Crown

Aussie, New York Rockers Release Sophomore Efforts

Read The Reviews: The Vines | The Walkmen

As I wrote in a column a few weeks back, it would be easy to tally up the total record sales of reto-rock bands like the Strokes or White Stripes and knock them for failing to live up to the hype.

In fairness, record sales are only a minor aspect of these bands’ impact on the current music scene. Sure, fans aren’t buying their records like they are Usher’s, but rock music fans, like Dylan’s Mr. Jones, know something is happening but they just don’t know what it is.

While they’ve failed to achieve superstar-level breakthroughs or make the mega-bucks that record execs were salivating for, these garage-rock bands have a far greater cultural and aesthetical impact than their own individual records.

Two new releases by bands who’ve clearly benefited from the path blazed by the Strokes and the Whites Stripes set out to answer the public’s question about what is happening.

What is their answer? They want their music to establish them as the kings of the hill.

The Vines “Winning Days”

Nobody wants to like the Vines. They’re too cute, and their onstage “insanity” (knocking over instruments, brawling, whatever) is about as well-rehearsed as Ryan Adams’ or Eddie Vedder’s antics of yesteryear.

Photo: Capitol Records

Photo: Capitol Records

What band frontman Craig Nicholls is trying to prove every time he’s on camera — letting his eyes roll in the back of his head mid-song and swinging his guitar around — is that he’s wild, unpredictable and he doesn’t care.

Nicholls and his bandmates should cut the crap. This act is old and obvious and will only give ammunition to those that will trash the band as an Aussie Nirvana knockoff.

The group’s 2001 debut, “Highly Evolved,” did well, but the combo still endured critical grumbling over their photogenic image and pop-friendly songs. But bashing the group for not being true to punk-rock contemporaries is a false argument. The Vines are power-punk-pop group and their music is less inhibited by the aesthetical traditions and musical strictures that the Strokes’ and Stripes’ operate under. Does anyone criticize Weezer for loving hooks and vocal harmonies?

The Vines’ new album, “Winning Days,” finds the band delivering a portion of their trademark 3-minute thrashers, but branching out in new musical avenues and dabbling in new sonic textures.

The sound of Nicholls and guitarist Ryan Griffiths pounding out chords and toying with screeching licks on the record’s opening tracks “Ride” and “Animal Machine” should satisfy those looking for holdovers from the Vines’ first album. So should “Evil Town,” a slice of ’90s grunge that the Stone Temple Pilots could easily lame claim to.

By record’s the third song, “TV Pro,” the Vines reveal some of their new musical orientation. Mostly, it’s them imitating the cosmic cowboy eeriness of bands like the Beachwood Sparks. This new sound is interspersed throughout “Winning Days,” each song using as foundation an acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies thoroughly soaked in reverb.

The songs continually switch around the musical emphasis to alter the mood for each composition. For “Rainfall,” the band creates a quick pace by layering a Byrds-like guitar melody on top. They invoke a dream-like quality for “Amnesia” by a making a cascading vocal part the center of chorus.

This new musical attitude should also inspire greater appreciation for Nicholls as a gifted and flexible performer than one would initially expect to (or sometimes, want to). Slithering through the plucking of an acoustic guitar on “Autumn Shade II,” Nicholls demonstrates that he actually has a decent singing voice when he’s not hollering at break-neck speeds. For “Sun Child,” Nicholls somehow succeeds in channeling “Champagne Supernova”-era Oasis.

The album closes with Nicholls once again dully yelling his head off, playing the part of the hedonist punk who could give a damn. But the talent and pop smarts demonstrated in “Winning Days” reveal that his act is just that. Nicholls pinpoints why listeners should look past the group’s rock star image when he sings on the album’s title track “cause underneath there’s gold/I need to get around to find it.”

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The Walkmen “Bows And Arrows”

One of the hallmarks of the Strokes’ sound on record is the spare, one-dimensional quality of the production. Their songs’ melodies — created by the vocals, guitar, and bass — are loud in the mix, but sleek, thin lines that easily coalesce into a whole. The drums, instead of sounding like a god hammering out a rhythm, seem to patter far into the musical background.

Fellow Gothamites the Walkmen take a different tact entirely. On record, the band blows their music up so that it seems that it spreads across every frequency of sound a recording studio, CD and stereo will permit.

As an example, take “The Rat,” from the group’s new release “Bow And Arrows.” The song is coated in a thick haze of guitar, keyboards, and bass riffs churning in unison. Thundering beneath is the song’s star performer, drummer Matt Barrick, who’s playing both drives and dominates the track. While setting a swift pace, Barrick sounds like two drummers working in unison, one relentlessly attacking a high-hat cymbal while another unleashes a series of frantic, concussive drum rolls.

Less a musical force to be reckoned than Barrick’s drumming, the vocals of the group’s frontman, Hamilton Leithauser, consistently define the essence of each frenzied track. His garbled growl is nearly a deadringer for Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and yet like Tweedy’s, is more emotive than its technical limitations would lead one to believe.

During noise-rock tracks like “My Old Man” and “The North Pole,” Leithauser’s voice conjures the same pissed-off ambivalence that the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas has thoroughly mastered.

Taking a break from the hard-edged numbers, Leithauser sounds almost endearing during latter songs like “Hang On Siobhan,” “New Year’s Eve” and the closing title track. The songs are as close to ballads as the Walkmen seemingly get.

While such musical excursions keep the pace from being too static, the group’s bread-and-butter remains heavy rock. With shards of guitar notes spitting forth, songs like “Little House Of Savages” and “Thinking Of A Dream I Had” are easily the record’s most thrilling moments.

The Walkmen’s New York rivals continue to enjoy greater name recognition, but records like “Bows And Arrows” should quickly change that.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2004 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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