So, we have a posh reissue of all the Vaselines’ classic recorded work coupled with a new LP, itself replete with single and an endearing video that sees Eugene and Frances duo camping it up as a very badly behaved priest & nun. Yes, it’s all been happening in Vaselines-land, which certainly belies their reputation as epic slackers.
Let’s begin at the beginning, then with the old stuff. The Vaselines’ 2-CD package of the early work comes with the usual obsessive notes and “faithfully reproduced” pictures. It really seems as if everything worth salvaging has been thrown onto the two CDs: maybe there wasn’t anything else at all - demos and two live gigs make up the second CD. Still, as an old fan I’m not complaining.
Listening back now after twenty odd years, it’s noticeable that the delicacy and precociousness of that first EP, (with the cover boasting C86’s pin-up couple proudly lounging on the grass), is still as strong as ever. It perfectly captures that hermetically-sealed, indie pop world; where gauche moping about in suede jacket or floral print dress seemed the only passport out of the brash, garish mid-to-late eighties scene. What I forgot about was the sex. Despite the candy-pop in excelcis feel of Son of a Gun, it’s the naughty lyrics and suggestive voices that hit home now. It’s as if the couple from Nuts in May were serial shaggers. And the funny Divine cover, You Think You’re a Man, with its bubbling electro beat and, well, “groaning” is a brilliant counterpoint to the fey moments on Rory Rides Me Raw and Son of a Gun.
Their second EP, Dying For It still has sex as numero uno subject, but with this EP it’s the sound that captures the imagination. You can really hear the effect that having a rhythm section had on the band’s sound and outlook. There’s a shift in tempo, everything is harder and more ragged, something that was carried on to good effect on Dum Dum. Indeed, the title track and Teenage Superstars are great pointers to the following year’s LP. Jesus Don’t Want Me For a Sunbeam has a touch of the Camper Van Beethoven’s about it, and is a good indicator of the shambling, messy sonic gauze that the band were starting to create. Molly’s Lips also avoids too much cuteness by way of a squawking bicycle bell that makes the track quite brilliant.
Time marched on a year to 1988: one that saw the birth of their classic LP; Dum Dum, a favourite of mine way back when; and still a mighty work now. It’s still hard and funny, and should be classed as a classic pop release. The band had by now settled down into an assured grumble, and they possessed a groove that the likes of Primal Scream circa 1988 would have killed for. Slushy is really Rory Ride Me Raw re-written and re-vamped to considerable gain, and Dying For It (Blues) nails the original EP track. Pop historians can luxuriate in comparing and contrasting the progression heard in these three (and a half) songs and there should be no doubt that the Dum Dum cuts are the definitive ones. The band’s sleazy side is also much more pronounced. Listen to Bitch and Monsterpussy, where all the twee elements have been greased, coiffed and perfumed to paint a very foppish and pervy picture. Bitch, for its part, is a brilliant stoner blues that sounds remarkably similar to the druggy semi-acoustic stew that MBV were just beginning to serve up.
The Lee & Nancy act reaches its apogee in No Hope, whilst the rock and roll is showcased in a brilliant four-song charge through the mid-section of the LP - with Dum Dum, Hairy, The Day I Was a Horse and the marvellous Lovecraft. It’s all very reminiscent of pepped up/psyched out mid-sixties rockers served up by the likes of the Yardbirds, Pretty Things, Elevators or Stones. What a marvellous LP all round.
Now, forgive me if I don’t get too carried away by the demos that open the second CD: the demos are, well, demos and interesting enough I suppose, but they don’t unlock anything that can’t be heard in a better state on CD one. Rosary Job and Red Poppy sound like they’re from some strange underwater world, a fact which will get you through a couple of listens at most. Where CD two really picks up is with the live sets, both very different, but both equally charming and caustically funny. The Bristol gig is charm (and 1986) personified, whilst the brash, bruising London gig shows all their spindly, sinewy jamming to good effect. Eugene’s wit is in evidence throughout; who other than a rake would mention Thora Hird to such applause?
So there you have it, a worthy compilation, for both nostalgic old gits like me and callow youth like you; with Dum Dum as a standout highlight. After that, the band split up and just slipped out of most people’s consciousness, (like “indie” bands did back then) Nirvana covers notwithstanding. You never thought that the Vaselines were in any particular hurry to get re-noticed anyway, which makes their reformation and their new LP, Sex with an X, all the more pleasurable.
In many ways they haven’t changed at all, not one iota, as playing compilation and new LP back to back will show. They’re still fruity, funny and charming in equal measure, and they still write clever, ever so slightly messy pop. And of course, there’s that sexual undercurrent. You can still recall Lee and Nancy, or, (with all due apologies to Eugene), the Shirelles propelled by a Velvet Underground groove.
What is noticeably different though is the elegance and restraint shown in the arrangements of tracks like Turning It On, or Such A Fool. It’s a very “dapper” record: the title track and Poison Pen are real winners; refined, funny and possessing that droll restraint that only comes with “Experience”. The upbeat tracks such as Overweight But Over You are stomps rather than charges; relying on silence and the use of space rather than scratching guitar squalls and shuddering drumming. You can also hear a marked soul “thump” in the rhythm section and at other times I’m (surprisingly) reminded of the melancholy beauty of Shack’s sound.
There’s plenty of sarky wit though; I Hate the 80’s is spot on, as any person with half a brain who actually lived through the decade will tell you.
This is a very fine record indeed, in no way looking to earlier times, but nevertheless crystallising all that was so good about them the first time around. Triumphant stuff and to be honest you should get hold of both these releases.