An overlooked album by a neglected band, Vision Valley has been consigned to a footnote in rock history. It’s a damn shame: The Vines’ third record is hella good. Guest blog by Scott Fleming
Not my words, but those of random YouTubers commenting on a clip containing The Vines’ 2006 album Vision Valley in its entirety.
That’ll do, right? You don’t need me harping on for several thousand words about what a wonderful and important record VV is when you’ve heard the opinions of ‘Eric Steve C G’ and ‘Holmezboy0116’. Do you?
At least I hope you don’t, because it’s a bit of an onerous task I’ve set myself here. I’m not trying to convince anyone that Vision Valley is one of the greatest albums of all time, nor am I attempting to persuade you it’s a contender for a lesser crown – best garage rock album of the mid-noughties, for instance. I’m simply trying to explain why a largely forgotten album by an Australian band that went out of vogue in 2004 has sneaked into my own internal top ten (a nebulous, constantly shifting list lurking in one of the darker and colder corners of my brain) alongside cast-iron classics such as The Doors and The Queen is Dead – and why it has stayed there, casually rebuffing bold but misguided attempts to dislodge it by Fleet Foxes’ eponymous debut and Tame Impala’s Lonerism with a malky and a swift knee to the baws respectively, before settling back into its well-worn butt groove on the sofa with a blunt and a Big Mac meal, Craig Nicholls-style.
But even that won’t be easy. To understand why, have a cursory glance at some reviews of The Vines’ more recent offerings.
[quote_center]”I’m simply trying to explain why a largely forgotten album by an Australian band that went out of vogue in 2004 has sneaked into my top ten”[/quote_center]
Opprobrium and obscurity
“The Vines: ’00s also-rans that started as a Nirvana tribute band and ultimately failed because they never ever amounted to anything more,” begins Clash writer Benji Taylor’s appraisal of Wicked Nature, the double album released last September.
“Perhaps it’d be possible to enjoy Wicked Nature on enough narcotics and alcohol – but it wouldn’t be worth the trip to the morgue the day after,” the review concludes.
This is fairly typical of the hatchet jobs carried out on Wicked Nature and its post-Vision Valley companions, Melodia and Future Primitive. In fact, pretty much everything The Vines have released since 2002’s Highly Evolved – a record that spawned several hit singles and led to all sorts of outlandish claims being made on the band’s behalf – has suffered a beatdown at the hands of the music press. The thickest slice of opprobrium was arguably reserved for sophomore effort Winning Days.
Even Vision Valley, favourably reviewed by big guns Q and NME, endured a critical kicking in some quarters, Rolling Stone likening it to “the worst of latter-day Weezer” and deriding its “emotional hollowness.”
If disappointment at the band’s failure to build on the bombastic “Hello, World” that was Highly Evolved is understandable, the downright contempt shown towards Nicholls and co is less so. The naysayers seem to view the front man like a deadbeat dad – one who promised to take them to Disneyland before blowing the holiday fund at the casino and downgrading to Butlins instead.
For my money, what too few realise is that Nicholls gave them not one but two outstanding LPs, and that he delivered the second – arguably more accomplished and emotionally hard-hitting than the first – during a period of utter chaos, both professional and personal.
Anatomy of a breakdown
A degree of context isn’t strictly necessary for you to enjoy Vision Valley, but it does help. The long and short of it is that Nicholls suffered a serious meltdown on the Winning Days tour. The fallout was a triple whammy: assault charges were brought against him by a photographer, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and the band’s bassist Patrick Matthews – a member since their formation way back in 1994 and another to endure the dubious honour of being set upon by Nicholls during a gig in Boston – departed.
I received my copy of Vision Valley on Christmas Day 2006. It had been released several months before, but I was still childish enough at that point to put great stock in the sanctity of Christmas Day; I made a habit of waiting till December 25th to get my hands on items I could easily have acquired weeks or months before.
Even before I’d torn off the cellophane and stuck it in the CD player I’d decided the album was a beautiful thing. Simple, but beautiful. Every other Vines album cover (some of them painted by the front man himself) is an assault on the eyeballs, a riot of colour. Vision Valley is starkly unvarnished by comparison. There’s the name of the band in white, a barb of vines encircling it; the album title, also in white; and a black background.
[quote_box_left]”Where the river ends the sun is comin’ down, through the vision valley waitin’ to be found”[/quote_box_left]One of the main criticisms levelled at this Sydney outfit down the years is that they can only do one type of album and two types of song: mournful, spaced-out tracks and rockier, adrenaline-fuelled numbers that last as long as Nicholls’ attention span allows – usually between 90 and 120 seconds. And as much as I can point to that sombre black artwork and the absence of an ‘Autumn Shade’ – a sequence of thematically-linked tracks that runs through every other Vines record excluding Wicked Nature – as evidence of Vision Valley’s specialness and otherness, it must be said that in most respects it conforms to those Vines album 101 schematics pretty neatly.
Breakdown of an anatomy
For a 13 track epic it clocks in at an improbably streamlined 31 minutes and 29 seconds. Tracks one, two, three, five, six, nine, ten and eleven are rocky; tracks four, seven, eight and twelve are reflective; track eleven is, well, a bit of both.
Maybe the magic lies in the fact that the band were doing the same things they’ve always done, but simply doing them better, pouring everything into it in the knowledge that Vision Valley could easily have been the last thing they worked on together. The album opens with ‘Anysound’, ‘Nothin’s Comin’ and ‘Candy Daze’, a triple combo of aural punches that leave the listener dazzled and see Nicholls, along with band mates Hamish Rosser and Ryan Griffiths, reach the pinnacle of their own little subgenre – a perfectly-sculpted nugget of garage rock. These songs don’t demand much of your time but they do demand your attention, and the complete lack of dead air in between only adds to the frisson, almost giving the impression that the trio are making it up as they go along.
[quote_center]”A deadbeat dad who promised to take them to Disneyland before blowing the holiday fund at the casino and downgrading to Butlins instead.”[/quote_center]
Now, to broach the subject of lyrics. It must be said that Messrs Cohen and Dylan needn’t ever worry about Craig Nicholls supplanting them on any ‘greatest lyricist of all-time’ lists. In fact, to convince you of Craig’s bang-averageness as a songwriter, all I have to do is point you towards the opening lines of track ten, ‘Futuretarded’.
“I don’t know how the future started/We might as well all be retarded…”
The funny thing is though, these lyrical troughs can actually enhance your enjoyment of the album, allowing you to be taken by surprise when you hit the peaks – and making those moments when Nicholls gets it right all the more compelling.
Moments like the title track, ‘Vision Valley’. I hope you’ll forgive me if I reproduce the lyrics in full here, like a schoolgirl scrawling the words to her favourite song on the back of a jotter. It is only four lines long, after all.
With the benefit of feelin’ on your own
Where the river ends the sun is comin’ down
Through the vision valley waitin’ to be found”
Simple, succinct, affecting. I’d argue these are decent lyrics judged against any barometer, but when you consider that this is the same guy that tells us “people are full of hurl” a few tracks later, you realise it’s akin to a Zoo magazine columnist knocking out a Booker-winning novel on his lunchbreak.
The beginning of the end
Six-minute long closing track ‘Spaceship’ may be grand and dramatic in a way that’s impossible to ignore, but ‘Vision Valley’ is the album’s foundation stone, beating heart, mission statement – whatever you want to call it. That’s due in part to the lyrics and the surprise use of classical instrumentation, but it’s also because the song is the clearest expression of VV’s key theme: escapism. From beginning to end – for all 31 minutes and 29 seconds – Nicholls is looking for a way out, for an alternative to the world of courtrooms, doctor’s offices and gigs gone badly wrong. Sometimes this other world takes the form of the Vision Valley itself, a lush and green Avalon-esque idyll. In ‘Atmos ‘ and ‘Spaceship’, the final two tracks on the album, it takes the form of outer space.
‘Atmos’ is the aforementioned ‘bit of both’ track, a perfect combination of the record’s primary two flavours; the first half shoots into space at the speed of light, the remainder drifts through orbit slowly and gracefully, Nicholls’ oohs and aahs soaked in reverb. As for ‘Spaceship’ I can state plainly that it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. Sorry, but I’m going to have to do the schoolgirl thing again. Ten lines this time.
Get me out
Get me out
I got a spaceship in the yard
We’re only 14 years apart
Or am I lost beside the stream?
Tattoo my head, tattoo my feet
I will leave…
Even in Craig’s more inspired moments as a songwriter, he rarely seems to be speaking directly into the real-life situations he’s going through. One of the things that makes ‘Spaceship’ special is that it’s one of the very few occasions in the entire Vines’ canon where he appears to be doing just that. It’s impossible not to read those lines and think about Winning Days tanking, Matthews storming off stage in Boston, Nicholls screaming “I’m free!” as he cantered down the court steps. It’s also hard not to think of his current plight – still living with his parents at age 37, churning out albums to little publicity and even less acclaim – and to reflect that, if ever he’s been ‘lost beside the stream’, that time is now.
If you go away and listen to Vision Valley, having never heard The Vines before, you’ll probably have a bit of a Marmite response, reaching the final track convinced that Nicholls is either a spoiled, self-pitying brat or a troubled genius who knows not what he does. If, like me, you’re in the latter category, you’ll find ‘Spaceship’ absolutely heart-breaking.
Vision Valley came along at what I suppose was a fairly interesting period of my life. I had just turned 19 and was in my secondary year at university. I was making new friends and going to new places, enjoying the gradual transition from drinking in swing parks and friends’ bedrooms to pubs and nightclubs. I’d be lying, though, if I said that my love for it was wrapped up in memories of that time or sealed by any one moment. It didn’t help me get through any bereavements, there wasn’t a relationship where I and the girl in question decided ‘Spaceship’ was ‘our song’ and I never got to see The Vines live and scream along to every lyric from the front row – which I would have been far too self-conscious to do anyway. Simply put, it was, is and always will be a fucking good album.