What an odd time for The Vaselines to reappear with a new batch of songs, at least from an artistic perspective. From a commercial perspective, the timing could not be more perfect. Their brand of simple, immaculately written and sloppily recorded garage pop has resurged over the past few years in the form of hugely popular bands like Times New Viking, No Age, the Dum Dum Girls and so on (if you like The Vaselines, you probably know the list). Those bands are all doing a damn fine job at it, but none of them have come close to making me forget that The Vaselines do it best. Moreover, they achieved their near-legendary status having only released one proper album (1989’s Dum Dum) and two EP’s (1987’s Son of a Gun and 1988’s Dying For It). In fact, their entire studio recorded output can be found on either 1992’s The Way of The Vaselines: A Complete History or 2009’s Enter The Vaselines (which also features remasters, live recordings, and demos).
Yet despite having attained rock ‘n’ roll immortality almost accidentally (Kurt Cobain’s constant endorsements didn’t hurt either), and despite having the luxury of witnessing their influence all over the independent music landscape, The Vaselines have returned with new material. I suppose they could need the money, but maybe there’s a less cynical reason behind all of this. Maybe inspiration actually struck, or maybe their reformation reminded founding members Francis McKee and Eugene Kelly of how much they liked playing together. Either way, Sex With an X is here, leaving their longtime fans gritting their teeth wondering if The Vaselines flawless discography was on the verge of being stained.
I’m sure there will be some contrarians that will argue that Sex With an X is a disappointment, but from my vantage point, I can’t imagine why. It certainly makes sense to be skeptical about the idea that the middle-aged Vaselines would be able replicate the enthusiasm (read: horniness) and guileless ingenuity of their more youthful work. But somehow, The Vaselines manage to retain a childish and candid edge without seeming like developmentally arrested fogies. On Sex With an X, listening to two people in their forties singing about sex is not just less than squirm-inducing; it’s actually a blast, as the immediately winning “Sex With an X” handily proves. They even rip into ’80s fetishist without seeming like aged party poopers on “I Hate the 80s” (with The Vaselines, the song title often tells the whole story).
But that’s enough admiring Sex With an X’s success in relation to The Vaselines’ age, because really, this record would sound fresh coming from anyone. Its appeal is universal. As ever, The Vaselines write jangly pop songs with melodies that are instantly lovable. “Turning It On” showcases the duo’s inimitable ear for vocal interplay and is destined to become a fan favorite. “Whitechapel” is a wicked shot of blues featuring an irresistibly smoky performance from McKee, a welcome reminder that The Vaselines do this sort of thing just as well as catchy, scrappy, and perverted pop.
The fact that The Vaselines can disappear for roughly 20 years and resurface with an album that hits the same pleasure centers as their earlier work is something incredible to behold. More impressively, they’ve returned at a time when their sound is not at a premium and showed all of those aforementioned young upstarts how it’s done. Hmm, maybe a new Pixies album wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world…