Steve Wilson. On music.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Vaccines - What Did You Expect From the Vaccines? (Columbia)


The Vaccines life changing qualities were hyped in the NME (New Musical Express), the British rock rag especially inclined to such raves. I think their writer said something about the Vaccines being the ‘next great guitar band,’ as if he could necessarily name the last one. Of course Mr. Brit-crit may soon turn on the Vaccines like a scorned lover; that’s pretty standard operating procedure among his breed. But, I thank him nevertheless for the tip. Sure I’ve been led down the garden path to this week’s band of the decade a few too many times, but it’s also where I first heard of the Libertines. So, you take the pointless detours along with the grand discoveries.

I downloaded all the free junk I could by the Vaccines. It was good enough to establish a qualified enthusiasm for hearing their, as yet at that point, unreleased debut What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?. Despite first impressions that confirmed certain indie-guitar band-by-the-numbers expectations (borrow from cool, iconic sources, and then do no harm), I quickly became convinced that the Vaccines are more than a superficial, formal pleasure.

The Vaccines play with real jangle-thrash authority. Justin Young and Freddie Cowan play guitar with the élan of guys who love Fender guitars played through impossibly loud amps – big, bright and distorted. The Vaccines’ rhythm section (Arni Amason on bass and Pete Robertson on drums) establishes a thumping white-boy groove, nervous and propulsive. Robertson plays with surprising detail – check out the cymbal work on “Westuit.” Producer Dan Grech-Marguerat fashions a mix that’s thick on reverb (both vocal and guitars), but rich with .detail. The band describes their sound as "'50s rock 'n' roll, '60s garage and girl groups, '70s punk, '80s American hardcore, C86 and good pop music.” Kudos for self-awareness, I guess. On some tracks, moody numbers like “Wetsuit” and “A Lack of Understanding,” the Vaccines reflect Jesus and Mary Chain and House of Love (I expected Guy Chadwick to start singing when I heard the very Terry Bickers-like guitar figure on “Blow it Up”) influences. On rowdier songs (“Wreckin’ Bar” and “Norgaard”) they sound like another British band that saw the Libertines innumerable times. But where Carl Barat sounds suave and randy the Vaccine’s front man Justin Young sounds like a less melodramatic James Allan (Glasvegas) crossed with Billy Bragg. At first he struck me as stiff, but I came around. The voice suits his songs.

Absent the Libertines’ poetic abandon, the Vaccines sing about stifled fear, chilly bedrooms and struggles with identity. “Wetsuit’s” chorus goes “Put a wetsuit on, grow your hair out long, put a t-shirt on, do me wrong, do me wrong, do me wrong” – conveying longing for comfort and commitment. Young, generally dour delivery aside, shows he can break out and display convincing emotion. “Norgaard” strikes a lighter tone. Where the Libs or the La’s might have sounded rakish serenading an underage (“she’s only seventeen, so she’s probably not ready”) Danish model (Amanda Norgaard), Justin Young sounds like a earnest, young Jonathan Richman stalking the unattainable, bent on the joys of failure.

“Post Break-Up Sex” is a churning (Ramones with a dash of shoegaze) rocker that addresses the pitfalls of same in a bluntly poetic manner. “Wolf Pack,” evokes the Smiths, as Young romances with faint praise (“I don’t find you crazy at all”). What Did You Expect from the Vaccines? runs a little short of steam on “Family.” The Vaccines sound like the Velvet Underground pounding out a slowed down take on Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up,” lamenting that “if you can’t go back then where the hell can you go?” Unfortunately, the dynamic arrangement and parched sentiment break down under too much repetition in the lyric.

But I quibble. Unlike ninety percent of the records I’ve heard recently, What Did You Expect from the Vaccines? actually deepens with repetition, which speaks to the strength of the Vaccines’ songs and performances. The band will be too idiomatically familiar for the Pitchfork crowd (rated 6.2),After all, time spent rocking out to well crafted tunes surely takes away from time spent in search of Greenpoint’s ultimate  mustache.

Reverberating: 8.6

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