The Vaselines have long been celebrated by musicians and indie rock enthusiasts across the globe, including superfan Kurt Cobain, while remaining underappreciated by the mainstream. "Enter The Vaselines" is the definitive triple LP/double CD collection. Includes new mixes and re-mastered versions of material previously available on "The Way Of The Vaselines", plus never-before-heard demos, and live recordings from 1986 in Bristol and 1988 in London.
Review by Tim Sendra
Kurt Cobain made plenty of mistakes in his life, but loving the Vaselines was not among them. Nirvana covered three of their songs, and as Kurt might tell you if he were alive today, from 1986 to 1989 the Vaselines were the best pop band around. Sub Pop was smart enough to cash in on the Nirvana connection, and in 1992 released the career retrospective The Way of the Vaselines: A Complete History. From the stomping, singalong opener "Son of a Gun" to the distorted and nasty "Let's Get Ugly" 17 tracks later, this collection was the Holy Grail of indie pop. In 2009, hot off of Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee's reunion (and appearance at Sub Pop's 20th anniversary bash), the label remastered the studio recordings, added a second disc of demos and live performances, and retitled the whole thing Enter the Vaselines.
The Vaselines' music is unfailingly amateurish, almost completely silly, occasionally quite perverted, and always about sex. It has the simplicity and ear-grabbing melodies of the best bubblegum, the loud and semi-competent guitars of punk, and some of the attitude and lo-fi sound of their noise rock contemporaries like the Jesus and Mary Chain. They also had a charmingly unschooled vocal approach (Kelly sounding cool and tough, McKee sweet as pie) with a fleeting acquaintance to pitch but tons of humor, attitude, and style. Throw in a bunch of religion and add brilliantly simple choruses that will have you singing along the first time you hear the songs (as well as the thousandth), and you've got genius. This brilliance shines brightest on the band's first two EPs, which were recorded by Stephen Pastel and contain the songs the group was best known for, like "Molly's Lips," "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam," and "Son of a Gun." The full-length album Dum-Dum, recorded without Pastel's guidance and with a bulked-up, rockier sound, is still quite amazing and features some timelessly cool songs like "Sex Sux (Amen)," which includes the immortal line "Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost/I'm the Sacred Host with the most," the rip-roaring "Monsterpussy," and the hilarious "The Day I Was a Horse." Taken together, the band's official output is brainy, funny, sexy, catchy pop music at its best.
So if the first disc of Enter the Vaselines is absolutely essential, the bonus disc is for fanatics only. The demos for "Son of a Gun" and unrecorded songs "Rosary Job" and "Red Poppy" are interesting from a historical perspective but not very listenable, as the duo hadn't really put its sound together yet. The live set from December of 1986 (three months before the first EP was recorded) is a sloppy, stiff performance with Kelly and McKee backed by a drum machine and fighting to be heard above the din of the unimpressed crowd. Much better is the live set from 1988 with a full band playing songs from the EPs and Dum-Dum (and a cover of Gary Glitter's "I Didn't Know I Loved You ['Til I Saw You Rock 'n' Roll]") in front of a semi-enthusiastic crowd. They still sound raw and amateurish but also like they are having much more fun. Kelly, McKee, and Pastel also seem to have had fun when they sat down for the chat about the history of the band that is a part of the set's beautiful packaging. Credit Sub Pop for putting tons of effort into the release of Enter the Vaselines and treating the band and the music with the respect they deserve. For a short period of time, there was nothing like them on Earth.
Famous superfans are both a blessing and a curse-- just ask the Vaselines. In 1992, at the urging of ardent admirer Kurt Cobain, Sub Pop released The Way of the Vaselines, a compilation of the short-lived and then-little-known band's extant recordings (a whopping 19 tracks). Hooray for them, right? Maybe. If the Vaselines originally slotted neatly into the mid-to-late 80s Scottish shambolic pop underground of the Pastels, Shop Assistants, and BMX Bandits, their origins-- and the band's actual recordings-- became overshadowed by a single factoid: They influenced Nirvana. Nirvana's (good-intentioned, I'm sure) covers of "Molly's Lips" and "Son of a Gun" were more-or-less faithful, bouncy renditions, but they lacked the humor, menace, and complexity of the naively played, ambivalently sung originals. And "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam" has long been associated with Nirvana's funereal MTV Unplugged performance, during which Cobain caressed the sweetly sacrilegious song with the reverence due a cultural relic-- something it neither wanted nor deserved.
Sub Pop's new Enter the Vaselines 2xCD set of remastered originals and unreleased demos and live tracks gives listeners, now adequately distanced from Cobain's influence, an opportunity to reevaluate the band on its own terms. In his liner notes, journalist and eternal scenester Everett True, batting around words like "sordidness" and "depravity" and painting core duo Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee as subversive artistes, probably overcorrects the Vaselines story. The slipcase's cover photo, featuring a glowering McKee and listless, stoned-looking Kelly, does an ace job of reinforcing this view, even as the set's musical contents tell a different tale.
As the former romantic couple has repeatedly asserted in interviews (including one conducted for inclusion in the set by Pastel Stephen McRobbie), the band was originally a lark, and many of their songs were written for a laugh by horny but essentially pretty wholesome kids with time on their hands. Early tracks-- "Rory Rides Me Raw", with its charmingly awful double entendres, and Divine cover "You Think You're a Man" with its juvenile, erm, climactic ending-- succinctly make that case. (They never abandoned the sexually provocative, however, going on to record songs like "Monsterpussy" and "The Day I Was a Horse".)
The Vaselines became a little more accomplished and professional over the course of their short run, ditching their drum machine for flesh-and-blood bandmates and investing greater effort, including actual guitar solos and orchestral arrangements (okay, "Sunbeam" has a viola), into their second EP, Dying for It, and only full-length, Dum-Dum. But as this career survey suggests, the band was at its best when they were at their worst, when they sounded like rank amateurs in the throes of DIY fever-- not to mention, love. Kelly and McKee's chemistry, their playful vocal trade-offs, and flirtatious innuendo are what make a song like "Gun" something more than anonymous C86 ephemera. And make them hard to cover well.
With their dirty mouths and pretty faces, pop perspicacity and knack for making a bloody racket, there's no question the Vaselines were worth rescuing from obscurity. And now that the original duo is touring for the first time in 20 years-- without any new product-- Sub Pop's compilation redux is, from a marketing perspective, understandable. Whether fans who already own the first Sub Pop compilation (which is still in print and less expensive) need to cough up cash for this second release isn't as clear. The 17-track bonus disc is fun to hear, particularly the demos for the unreleased "Rosary Job" and "Red Poppy", but it's hardly a game-changer. And considering the Vaselines' studio recordings were almost as fuzzy and slipshod as their demos and live tracks, the audio fidelity upgrade, while nice to have, probably won't sway the lo-fi-loving hardcores, nor should it.
— Amy Granzin, May 5, 2009