Saturday, January 1, 2011

mouth to mouth

it seems that lately, in popular music, there has been a renaissance moment occurring for nostalgia. bands have been going out to perform their “classic” albums, in sequence, and in their entirety; the recent vinyl boom has seen spates of high-fidelity reissues appear; and bands who have lain dormant for years and decades had resurfaced to popular and critical acclaim.
sometimes these forays back into the limelight have proven unwise (or at least imprudent) for some acts, who have aged poorly or blindly or both. but surprisingly, many of these resurgistes (teenage fanclub, the clean, members of galaxie 500) have defied the old rock’n’roll wisdom that it’s better to live fast and die young, and are turning out material that sounds both fresh, relevant and vibrant amidst contemporary hot shots, yet pleasantly and undeniably kindred to their past work. amidst the “indie” ranks in particular there is no one who conspicuously acts the “mick jagger” role as stubborn dinosaur. ok, maybe black francis…

with some of these bands, they haven’t really been away, but their output has dwindled the such a trickle it’s seemed as though they have. i mean, sure the clean broke up more than twenty years ago, but they’ve been reformed for a long time already, and it’s more their disparate geography that keeps their output lean and hungry.
with one band however, they really did, for all intents and purposes, disappear, breaking up almost instantly after their first lp was released, way back in 1989.
i discovered them four years after the fact, spurred on as many others were by the exuberence of a local guy who’d made good and who was a big, big fan, and who had covered several of their songs.
their original material was difficult for an indie-newbie like myself, and i was content by a sub pop compilation, but spent years wishing more had been put out.
but now they’re back with a new lp, also on sub pop, and remarkably even produced by the same fellow who did the deed twenty-one years earlier; and in doing so they made it possible for me to deliriously utter a phrase i never in my life expected to voice:
“hey, have you heard the new vaselines record?

i don’t know if i can adequately express my feelings about the vaselines.
as a young nirvana fan, it was exciting to follow any clue towards the origin myths of the band; original, loud and punk, seething with honesty amidst the “grunge” ego acts, they held me, and most of my friends in a sway that transcended merely liking a rock band, and inspired us to seek out and be critical of, more and more music. kurt cobain’s admiration for the vaselines seemed fervent and unappealingly fanboyish, but the nirvana versions of “molly’s lips” and “son of a gun” were overwhelmingly tantalizing, and i remember how thrilled i was when i found the 1992 compilation “way of the vaselines: a complete history.”
the thrill lasted until i got home and got the disc into my cd player, then it was replaced by something more akin to bewildered awe.
i had never heard anything quite like this before.
the vaselines were a racy, raw and twee band, and to a more-isolated-than-average teenager in seattle, who had not quite yet become aware of the olympia scene, eugene kelly and frances mckee’s jaunty little punk tunes sounded both scandalous and true. of course, it took very few years for their influence to take hold, but for me, for a small space of time, they acted upon my malleable emerging artistic conciousnous as a tinderstick, sparking ideas and appreciations that would resurface in myriad ways as i grew and understood ever more. more than anything though, more than the slightly seedy and sneaky, yet very intriguing sexuality to the vaselines (both in the material and in the name), more than the buzz about how they disappeared and then got famous, i think what made the biggest impression on me, and the most lasting influence, was the way the vaselines sounded. they were raw and a little awkward; they had a punk sound to them, but they had something else (which i didn’t know was called “twee pop”), and the juxtaposition of their grit and cuteness stuck with me.

it was awesome then, to hear that same balance in the songs filling “sex with an x,” the second(!) vaselines studio lp ever. The sound is sometimes a little more lush, a little more accomplished, but the energy, the smartness, the weary wryness and yes, the sexiness, are all there in spades, with the “young” vaselines sound filled in by years of experience as both people and musicians (both mckee and kelly have kept playing through the years, in groups or solo). “sex with an x” kicks off rough and punk with “ruined,” then rolls through forty-two minutes of bouncing between songs that sound as though they went through a wormhole from “dum-dum” (the 1989 lp) to today without pause, and material like “exit the vaselines” which evokes a sonic texture not unlike the best songs by another scottish outfit, the delgados.
there is a hint of glaswegian superstars belle & sebastian on “sex with an x” as well, although it’s more detectable as the quality of that band rather than any specific likeness; and it’s all too easy to explain, as belle & sebastian guitarist and bassist, stevie jackson and bob kildea, respectively, have lent their talents to the recording (and to the touring band as well).

it seems like so much of commercial pop these days is still relying on hooks and images to sell “units,” in the same way they’ve been doing for decades. what this return of the vaselines, the “return” of vinyl, and the continuance of unexpectedly venerable old indie bands, can tell us is:
when the music is this good, why stop?

i hope I don’t have to wait another twenty years now for more of this good stuff.