As Howard Dean proved, the pressure of being hailed the enchilada grande in anything is a real bitch. One small setback and you're banshee-howling into a lapel mic with a masturbatory red-face expression, and people are more likely to elect you into a psych-student case study than into the White House.
Australia's The Vines know a few things about hype, although they haven't made the long fall from its questionable graces-yet. When the Sydney rock band released Highly Evolved two years ago on Capitol Records, their teen spirit reeked from the Outback to Olympia, a familiar whiff of the Nirvana trifecta: a troubled frontman who embodies sex in a hadn't-showered-since-puberty way, a hush-scorch dynamic in their music, and screamed-on-pitch vocals that sounded like frontman Craig Nicholls' larynx was running on a faulty fan belt.
Their hit single, "Get Free," attacked like a back draft-scaring the crap out of the residents, receding back into the structure of the song, and then exploding into a chorus where Nicholls explained that he's the most unlovable little fucker on the planet. It wasn't nearly as ironic, smart or culturally resonant as Kurt Cobain's "Negative Creep", but the feel was right there with him.
It was one of the more admirable simulacrums pop music had heard since Saint Kurt reached for the ibuprofen-of-steel and emptied the contents of the head that haunted him.
In the feel-good afterlife flick Ghost, Patrick Swayze is whacked before he's able to tell Demi Moore that he loves her. If nothing else, The Vines let people purge a desperate longing for Cobain's return that we had tucked away or can't exorcise with a candlelight vigil.
Nicholls probably got the creepy feeling that a 14-year-old boy gets when his widowed mom appears at the basement bong session late one night, wine on her breath, and begins flirting with his friends. After all, we are the popular culture that birthed Cobain-the-Pisces-Jesus-martyr and unnaturally coveted him; and as the idolatrous issue of this month's SPIN proved, we still miss his touch.
And possibly that's why The Vines' Nicholls seemed to recede into the prophecy we handed him. At live shows, he would roll his eyes back into his head as if the thousands of pop monsters screaming for him was a fixated army he couldn't overcome. He would scream so far out of tune that the songs surpassed art and became war. His lyrics were never good, but at least on record they were intelligible. In concert, it was just mumbled rage, and after punk and grunge, audiences needed more than inchoate rage to justify their love.
Critics panned him like sport, and Nicholls' behavior became even more macabre and serial. In December 2002 it culminated in an onstage brawl between he and bassist Patrick Matthews. Matthews broke a string during "Ain't No Room," which pissed Nicholls off so bad he thwacked his bassist in the head. Matthews returned the violence, tackling him until their brawl tumbled both of them-fists flying-into the crowd.
The band cancelled the rest of their tour to get their sanity back, a move that would've saved Howard Dean a few million bucks had he followed.
Pressure-dinged, it's no wonder that The Vines' newest, Winning Days, moves away from the Nirvana-Na-Na revival and embraces another, less star-crossed influence: The Beatles. Highly Evolved had shown great pop chops, a knack for Limey-like harmonics and crisscrossing vocal sweetness.
Winning Days all but madly embraces this side, letting a few shards of distorted guitar and wail shine through just to remind American kids that it's still the same band.
It's the direction they're going-and hopefully, on the eve of headlining the "Australian Invasion Tour," the sweetness will help Nicholls ditch the ghosts-his own and those foisted upon him.
You've got to figure this tour is the make-or-break run for The Vines-either they'll get it together and recreate their magic live, or the hand of pop culture will push them over the edge into obscurity, written off as a one-night romp at Motel Purgatory with the pennyroyal ghost.
The Vines play with Jet, The Living End and Neon, 7 p.m. on April 10. $16. 619-226-7662.