Reviewing the Vines’ debut single, New Musical Express gushed thusly: “You’ve got to imagine that by the end of the year, the Vines are going to be bigger than U2, Gareth Gates and Nickelback combined. We’re not joking. This is a record you must own.” Granted, you hear such shit every week from the Britpress, but the Vines—who cop major parts of the Strokes’ sound and look but are from Australia and grok Nirvana as much as ’70s punk—represent a new species of British hype, riding the wave of American-based neo-garage that put both the Strokes and stateside semi-obscurants like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club on the cover of NME last year.
Meanwhile, good old-fashioned Britpop—which got the lion’s share of Britpress coverage during the ’90s—is in something like stasis, artistically if not commercially. And what rhymes with stasis? Oasis, of course. Although “Stop Crying Your Heart Out,” the first single from Heathen Chemistry, sits at No. 13 on the British charts as I write, it’s the only proper Britpop song in the top 20, and it’s surrounded by Americans, including Eminem, Wyclef, Nelly, and Jennifer Lopez. Moreover, by sounding more or less like they did back in the day, Oasis aren’t helping the cause.
The water-treading (if not dead man’s float) of Oasis, plus the rise of the Vines, happens at an interesting time for British music. In April of this year, there were no U.K. acts in the top 100 singles chart in the U.S. for the first time since 1963, prompting some industry bigwigs to publish a marketing report entitled “Make or Break: Supporting U.K. Music in the U.S.A.” If Oasis embody the decay of Britpop in its homeland, the Vines speak to the further Americanization of English music when American pop music writ large—especially hip-hop, the least English music ever—is exponentially outselling British music on both sides of the Atlantic.
The problem isn’t just that the best new sounds on the British charts are coming from either the electronic music scene or from America, it’s that a core Englishness overwhelms most guitar bands, these two included. Despite their colonial heritage and homages to the Stooges and Bleach-era Nirvana on Highly Evolved, there’s still something ineffably cute and wimpy about the Vines’ guitar blatherings. At a well-attended “secret” show by neo-garage phenoms the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Luxx three weeks ago, the scattering of anti-Strokes T-shirts reminded me that, at a Mercury Lounge Vines showcase two months ago, the charming Aussies had met with indifference if not outright disgust. Not that Williamsburg hipsters are much of a musico-cultural barometer. But the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a band much rawer and more doggedly indie than the Vines, represent a neo-punk standard the current crop of Brits can only asymptotically approach. The Vines have trouble faking both the depth of feeling and the noisome mischief that good garage-punk requires, and the two rote Britpop numbers they tack on don’t help. Sandwiched between the Strokes-y “Ain’t No Room” and the Cobain-karaoke “In the Jungle” lies a note-perfect Oasis rip (which is to say a note-perfect “Dear Prudence” rip) called “Mary Jane.” It’s an ode less to a girl or hemp than to feeling astral, spectral, and dreamy—and to having great cheekbones to boot.
The Oasis hype machine has cooled steadily over the last decade, but that doesn’t mean they’re changing their game. Sure, both Liam and Noel have mellowed a bit since the butt-stupid Britpop wars of the mid ’90s, back when Noel, the closest thing to Eminem Britain’s ever had, told the press that he hoped the members of Blur would “catch fucking AIDS and die.” But right down to their haircuts (Liam Gallagher’s ‘do is so fabbo that he was featured prominently in a “mod” fashion spread in the April Esquire), it’s 1995 all over again.
Heathen Chemistry is such a non-advance that you almost have to admire Oasis’s stubbornness. Of the half-dozen or so songs that go anywhere at all, only “The Hindu Times” and the OK Stone Roses update “(Probably) All in the Mind” match smart sonics with good melodies in the way some of their mid-’90s blockbusters did. And while Noel Gallagher’s guitar-track construction has only gotten snazzier, remember that Oasis once did for the pensive, pseudo-psychedelic chorus what Def Leppard had done for the giant sports-anthem refrain a few years before. Nowadays, the Gallaghers can only offer stylized guitar murk and hookless acoustic ditties; even scarier, you can understand their lyrics, which are more mush-headed and lovey-dovey than you’d expect from a band this self-satisfied.
If you think that’s too harsh an appraisal, note that NME once referred to Oasis’s “Who Feels Love?” as “a piece of tacky sub-Kula Shaker tripe that’s so shit it probably wouldn’t even have made it onto that fuck-awful abortion that passes for the new Paul Weller album.” The flip side of the hyperbole NME is tossing at the Vines, it seems, sounds a lot like the stuff that comes out of the mouth of that catty witch from The Weakest Link. Surely retro fever is partly to blame for the current Britpop dilemma. But even worse is the English press’s need to pretend—and believe—that just around the corner there are new messiahs with guitars in tow, saviors who’ll draw a straight line from Saints John and Paul to the present, thus saving the British economy and their jobs. Too many up-and-comers are content to base their careers on a similar principle. Which is a ruse as stupid and vainglorious as the monarchy.
The Vines play Bowery Ballroom July 17.