The Vines are back, but Craig isn't talking

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

March 18, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison

I don't think he has good sense.

So when I got word that Craig Nicholls, the Vines' frontman, wasn't talking to me about the band's new album, my feelings weren't hurt. It's nothing personal, understand. Craig simply isn't talking to any journalist about Winning Days, the punk band's follow-up to its platinum debut, Highly Evolved. This may be a good thing, because his disconnected quotes and wild antics on and off the stage have almost overshadowed the group's appealing music.

"It wouldn't be good if people just know us by Craig smoking pot and smashing guitars," says Patrick Matthews, the Vines' sensible bassist and designated spokesman. He's phoning from Los Angeles. "There have always been characters in music, like Iggy Pop and David Bowie, you know. ... Few people seem to know that the first thing on Craig's mind is to make a record."

If you've read the stories in Spin and Rolling Stone, then you know that, in Craig's world, good chronic comes second to music. With his bong close by, the Vines' chief songwriter crafted a batch of loud, idiosyncratic tunes that aren't as hooky as the ones on Highly Evolved. But there's something more muscular about the overall sound of Winning Days, which hits stores Tuesday.

"We all wanted to make the rhythmic section better," Patrick says. "Nobody had a one idea for this record. We sorta put it together on tour, then went to record it. When we were recording our last record, the drummer [David Olliffe] walked out. We didn't have any disasters like that this time."

After the draining world tour for its first record, the Australian quartet, which also includes drummer Hamish Rosser and guitarist Ryan Griffiths, settled in at Bearsville near Woodstock, N.Y. Founded by Bob Dylan's former manager Albert Grossman, the studio sits on a tranquil estate. Birds. Deer. Trees and more trees. There's nothing else to do but jam. Such diverse acts as R.E.M. and the Isley Brothers have recorded at Bearsville.

"The whole Woodstock area is artistic," Patrick says. "There are chain stores and mom-and-pop stores. The studio got Craig to calm down more and concentrate on [his] vocals."

The open, relaxed area certainly had an effect as the guys laid down Winning Days. The CD may be a bit of a disappointment for those who dug the immediacy of Highly Evolved. Like most sophomore sets, the record is a little uneven, but brilliance peeks out here and there. Halfway through the album, you can tell that the Vines want to stretch, experiment a little, but the guys seem uncertain about just how to do it. The album isn't a sharp departure from its predecessor's MTV-ready punk-rock. On such tracks as "Amnesia" and "TV Pro," the group abandons strong melodies and catchy hooks for spacey, psychedelic-pop arrangements that fold in elements of Revolver-era Beatles.

"Maybe there are more stranger chords on this record," Patrick says. "But Craig is always making music with chords that don't generally go together. A lot of the record was improvised in the studio."

Ever since "Get Free," the band's first smash, exploded on the radio and MTV two years ago, the Vines have been lumped together with other energetic, back-to-basics rock outfits: the Hives, the Strokes and the White Stripes. Each band has adapted a no-frills, hard-edge approach to the genre. But not one sounds like the other. The Hives, the Strokes and definitely the White Stripes have attained a certain credibility with warmed-up, digestible retreads of classic punk-rock. The Vines, however, are the noisiest, most commercial of the bunch. Plus, cameras seem to love the frontman. Even when he's half-baked, Craig is still an adorable porcelain boy with messy hair.

The group's live shows may be chock full of rock cliches with Craig kicking over amps and jumping into Hamish's drum kit. But Winning Days suggests that the group may be growing up. The focus is more on making solid, expansive music.

"I thought about going back to medical school many times," Patrick says. "But I plan to stick with the group. We want to make better music -- if we don't kill each other first."

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