The Vaselines (Music Review)

Enter the Vaselines cover

The Vaselines - Enter the Vaselines

The Vaselines were sort of the Velvet Underground of the late 80’s: Almost no one listened to them at the time, but everyone who did went out and started a band. Today, they are best known as “the band that Nirvana kept covering”. But last year, the Vaselines started getting more attention in their own right. Sub Pop released a retrospective of their past work, as well as their first new album in two decades. It’s late in coming, but the band deserves the increased recognition that they are finally getting.

Listening to Enter The Vaselines, it’s easy to see how they inspired Kurt Cobain and his peers. Though all the songs were recorded in the late 80’s, they sound like they came straight out of 90’s rock radio. It’s also easy to see why they didn’t make a splash on their own. The low budget, DIY performance had very little in common with the polished synth-rock that dominated at the time. All their recorded work, two EPs and one full-length, fits on one CD, leaving the second disk to be filled with demos and live recordings. (This second CD has a couple bright points, but for the most part, it leaves you feeling that you didn’t miss anything by not seeing them at the time. Perhaps that is another reason that the band didn’t achieve immediate fame.)

Most of their best-known songs are on those first two EPs. With very few influences to draw from directly, The Vaselines applied their low-fi approach to anything that crossed their mind. The results include fuzzed-out rock, folk, pop, and even a compelling disco cover. The lyrics are bratty, immature, and often sexual. The kink factor is raised by the way the boy-girl duo took turns with the lead vocals, giving the impression that they were double-teaming the subject of their song.

Their eventual album, Dum Dum, is not quite as memorable as those early songs. That is partly because a full-length release allows space for filler songs, so it doesn’t seem as solid as the earlier EPs. Additionally, by this time the band had settled on a more straightforward rock sound as the source for most of their songs. It was prescient, as most bands would be following that lead a few years later, but the songs don’t feel as varied or memorable as the early ones.

That’s not to say that Dum Dum was bad. Held up next to the songs it inspired a few years later, it still sounds great. Even discounting their influence, these songs are good enough to be remembered alongside the hits of the alternative years. And to be fair, they did experiment with their sound a bit on the album: “No Hope” is a smooth, compelling downer of a song, and “Lovecraft” is a (less successful) droner. But the album is best appreciated for its catchy, bouncing songs like “Sex Sux (Amen)” and “Oliver Twisted”.

Sex With An X cover

The Vaselines - Sex With An X

Sex With An X is a new Vaselines album, in the sense that it’s fronted by the same two people, and they still have a gift for hooky, memorable songs. But the days of The Vaselines are half a lifetime away for them, and they don’t seem to have any desire to recreate that time. The new album neither slavishly follows the original sound nor tries to re-establish their cutting-edge credentials. Instead, this is a comfortable, confident slice of adult-oriented pop music from two middle-aged people who have nothing to prove.

The sound is smooth, and the production is slick, in direct contrast to their late 80’s sound. In some ways, this feels more appropriate for the name “Vaselines” than the original songs. However, they’ve lost the kinky edge that also fit the name. The few songs that mention sex now sound tame (“Feels so right/ It must be wrong for me/ Let’s do it, let’s do it again” goes the title track), and the rest have been replaced by more world-weary breakup songs.

It’s still good, as long as no one holds them to a purist ideal of how the band “should” sound. The songs are not going to inspire a new generation to start their own bands, but if you’re just looking for good, memorable songs, the hit-to-miss ratio is honestly better than Dum Dum’s was. The singers still have a sense of humor, as seen in “Overweight But Over You” and “Ruined” (a self-aware attack on old, washed-up bands), and they cover a wide variety of topics, from “I Hate the 80’s” to “My God’s Bigger Than Your God”.

These two releases are both very good in different ways. Exit The Vaselines is a relic of an under-appreciated classic. It is no longer groundbreaking, but still holds up for anyone who wants more music from that era. Sex With An X is a collection of polished songs that aren’t necessarily trying to be remembered decades later, but that are perfectly fun right now.

Enter The Vaselines: B

Sex With An X: B

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