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The Vaselines - Sex With an X

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Artist: The Vaselines

Album: Sex With an X

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: Sep. 16, 2010

The Vaselines broke up 20 years ago, shortly after their first (and, until now, only) studio album, Dum-Dum, was released to widespread indifference. Their fizzy, fuzzy, aggression-tinged-with-sweetness might be altogether forgotten by now, except that Calvin Johnson passed on a copy of the “Dying for It” EP along to Kurt Cobain sometime before his supernova. Like Daniel Johnston, the Vaselines were carried along on a wild wave of Cobain-approval, invited to tour with Nirvana in 1990 and covered on the band’s Incesticide (“Molly’s Lips” and “Son of Gun”) and MTV Unplugged (“Jesus Don’t Want Me For a Sunbeam”). Cobain even named his daughter Frances after the Vaselines’ Frances McKee.

It all came too late for The Vaselines, whose giddy, twitchy, hormonally-sparked boy-girl escapades were out of line with the male-dominated self-seriousness of early 1990s grunge. And anyway, they were done. Singer Eugene Kelly had already moved on to Captain America (later, after a spat with Marvel Comics, re-named Eugenius), while McKee turned up in Suckle and her own solo projects. Yet as the years rolled on, and mixed gender lo-fi pop bands began to sprout in damp basements like mushrooms, The Vaselines’ joyfully unhinged aesthetic began to seem prescient. The retrospective, Sub Pop’s Enter The Vaselines double disc, came out in 2009, the same year that Vivian Girls and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart broke big.

Late-coming approval brought The Vaselines back, at least sporadically. They toured in support of Enter The Vaselines, and played festivals like Primavera Sound and Uncut in 2009. Somewhere along the line, Kelly and McKee decided to start writing again. And here’s the relief: the results are surprisingly good, though maybe not as effervescent as the old tunes.

That’s a surprise, because at superficial level, The Vaselines look like exactly the kind of band that doesn’t survive middle age very well. Their main qualities – a cuddly, endearing sort of sexuality (“Molly’s Lips), a fuzz-crusted, tuneful aggressiveness (“Sex Sux”) and a complete disregard for instrumental or vocal prowess (pretty much everything from the old days is out of tune) – are charming in teenagers, less so in adults. And, indeed, the first thing you notice about Sex with an X is that it is considerably better played, sung and produced than first-run Vaselines. It’s not slick, certainly, but more assured and on key. They’ve been practicing, evidently.

There’s also a strong sense of self-deprecation, a kind of “we’re old, but what the hell” quality that runs from the title (surely Sex with an X is as much a metaphor for starting the band again as for any resuscitated relationship) to the goofy lyrics about mid-life foibles. You find yourself warming to a band that dismisses its 1980s heyday with a fun-loving snort (From “I Hate the 80s”: “What do you know? You weren’t there. It wasn’t all Duran Duran Duran Duran.”)

Some of the songs sound remarkably like the old Vaselines, with lithe and sinewy guitar lines popping up like muscles under candy choruses. “Overweight But Over You” could easily be a first-run song, with its burly bass, its crashing rhythms, its shouted choruses (“Hey fat mama, I’m a fat man!”), its insouciant male-female interplay. Only the subject matter – the effects of mid-life bulk on romance – seems to have matured. “My God’s Bigger than Your God” echoes the jaunty blasphemies of “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” in a one-two wallop that is still not afraid of stirring up religious tensions.

In other places, The Vaselines sound like a whole different band, mostly due to Frances McKee torchier, less waif-like singing. She used to sound like a schoolgirl in a wet sweater caught in the rain. Now she’s more knowing, slower, smoother and more vocally accomplished. That means that The Vaselines can do things that they couldn’t in the 1980s – such as nailing the girl-group dreaminess of “Such a Fool,” or pulling off the slow-waltzing swagger of “Turn Me On.” Sex With an X is far more varied in its tempos, moods and arrangements than The Vaselines’ earlier work, and that’s a positive.

No one can be a teenager again, not after 20 years, and The Vaselines have lost some of the feckless charm of their earliest material. Still, as they’ve gotten older, they’ve held onto much of what made them special – the reckless fun, the gritty melodies, the taunting humor – and picked up some skills. They’re aging well.

By Jennifer Kelly

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