The Vaselines’ Smooth Return on “Sex With An X”

It’s as impossible to resist the The Vaselines’ first album in twenty years as it is to resist their story.  Here’s the pitch: in 1990 1989, the Glaswegian duo produce an excellent and tuneful debut album only to break up virtually the same week.  They then get their footnote in rock history when (on the MTV Unplugged album) they’re promoted by Kurt Cobain as his favorite songwriters, leading to posthumous sales (for the band) and a posthumous honorific to Kurt as a very talented A&R man.  Years go by, and in 2008, Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee reunite for the SubPop 20th.  Next thing we know, it’s 2010 and they release an album so charming, such a tasteful delight, that we find ourselves celebrating and at the same time a la recherche du temps perdu.

Sex With An X picks up where they started… contemporaries of the Go Betweens, but always with just enough of a hard edge and a default punk rock beat to block accusations of being fey.  Neither has a great voice, though they sing well together.  Jon Langford and Sally Timms come to mind, and surely the Mekons are musical confederates, even as we also think of mid-Seventies Lou Reed as an avatar.  In fact, while the Jesus and Mary Chain preceded them in Glasgow by a few years, it’s easy to imagine Eugene and Frances standing with a pint as those other Reeds set the bar on fire.

When Enter The Vaselines came out earlier this year — SubPop’s bundle of their early EPs as well as the complete DumDum album —  those of us who’d sort of sniffed at them a generation ago came to find there was gritty rockin’ substance in that soft, oleaginous goo.  Jesus may have wanted them for a sunbeam, but SupPop wanted them for their kick.  Kurt was right about them, though if you put a gun to my head — bad juxtaposition in this sentence, I know — I probably prefer Nirvana’s versions of their songs. Though they seem completely unimpressed with their own mythology, they make a statement on Sex With An X, as if it’s time the world got a sense of who they really are, and time they showed us.

“Hey, we got nothing to say, but we’re saying it anyway,” is as honest a line from a comeback album as ever there was.  It may be the only thing in Sex With An X that doesn’t ring true.

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