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The Vaselines - Enter the Vaselines

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Artist: The Vaselines

Album: Enter the Vaselines

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: May. 8, 2009

As the Vaselines, Scots Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee have led a curious career in two distinct acts, each steered and written by an entirely different set of hands. Over 20 years on from their inception, the pair have managed to drift across the 1980s international pop underground, influence the work of perhaps the single most revered 1990s rock icon, and even made time for a reunion epilogue in 2008, playing their first American shows with a rag-tag band of musicians they obviously inspired in the first place. In all, not bad for a couple of scruffy, sex-obsessed, twee-pop iconoclasts.

Over and out in about four years, Kelly and McKee originally orbited Stephen Pastel’s 53rd & 3rd Records, issuing a couple of great, bizarre singles and one fairly straight-ahead full-length before calling it a day in 1990. Pulling an undeniably obvious influence from fellow countrymen like the Pastels and Orange Juice (as well junk culture icons like Divine), the pair were armed as much with gags and in-jokes as they were instruments, crafting tossed off tunes that celebrated the unstudied with ramshackle glee.

Even without the intervention of “a certain trio from Olympia,” as the liner notes for Enter the Vaselines, Sub Pop’s generously expansive collection of everything the group recorded, understatedly puts it, both of the band’s singles (“Son of a Gun” and “Dying for It”) would still be the stuff of legends today. Alternating between the distorto-power-pop of “Son of a Gun,” the bright and blaring jangle of “Molly’s Lips” and “Rory Rides Me Raw,” and the slightly (and paradoxically) overcast “Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam,” these tracks not only showcase the best songs the duo ever wrote, but an approach to pop that replaced their peers’ obsession with waifish naïveté with an overt sexuality and sense of humor that separates their tracks from both followers and imitators to this day.

Just before disbanding in 1990, Kelly and McKee managed their sole full-length, a distinctly more rocked up Dum Dum. Gnarled and aggressive in ways they hadn’t yet attempted, the 12 songs here birthed another handful of gems (like the surprising stomp of “Monsterpussy” and the propulsive percussions of “Lovecraft”), although none of them ever managed to scale the same heights as the group’s pair of singles.

Normally, the story would have ended there – another great band with a tiny discography confined to the margins, collected and obsessed over by a few devotees until the end of time. Few could have predicted the turn popular music would take throughout the early 1990s, with Nirvana channeling the influences of a disparate batch of 1980s hardcore, punk and indie pop all the way to worldwide fame and massive record sales. It seems strange now to even think it could happen this way, but Kurt Cobain’s obsessive championing of the Vaselines (and Nirvana’s subsequent decision to release cover versions of three of the band’s songs) catapulted Kelly and McKee to a bizarre new stage in their career – from also-ran to unlikely progenitor and influencer of one of the most popular rock bands in history.

As exciting as it must have been for the Vaselines to have their music rescued from the margins and presented to a whole new audience courtesy of Sub Pop’s original discography The Way of the Vaselines, it forced the band into a position that wasn’t entirely fair. Songs that had originally been written for laughs or as casual asides became studied entries in a generation’s defining musical lexicon and, even worse, eulogies for a fallen star. Now, 17 years removed from the original stateside release of the band’s music, this expanded reissue (buttressed with an additional disc of decent live tracks and a few cool demos) gives an entirely new generation of pop fans an excuse to dive into the group’s music. Their voices – not Kurt’s – will ultimately determine Kelly and McKee’s rank in rock ‘n’ roll’s canon.

By Michael Crumsho

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