In the ensuing years since their first last gasp, The Vaselines have come to encapsulate a particular genre in rock music that evokes a maverick spirit executed in a style and attitude that is delightfully amateur. This aesthetic can be charming as hell, but as proven by the tired crop of bands shuffling their feet in vain efforts to recreate the C86-and-beyond indie sounds of yesteryear, amateur is still amateur, and sooner or later you are going to want your pet band to grow up a bit and start acting like pros.
The Vaselines have grown up, and after 20 years in the weeds, the duo of Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee has reunited to release only its second album to date. Embracing the ‘old ways are the best’ mentality, Sex with an X is produced by Jamie Watson (who produced the band’s 1989 set Dum Dum) and is back-bolstered adequately by bright students of Scottish indie pop from Belle and Sebastian and The 1990s (hey, it’s The Vaselines, not ‘important musicians’ like Muse or Coldplay). Without a steady progression of the tandem’s music over the past 20 years, it is not at all staggering to hear oodles of reminiscences to sounds past on this record. In fact, besides the absence of Kelly’s floppy fringe, the band seems strangely preserved over the span of two decades of relative inactivity as The Vaselines.
Like the band of old, some nagging songs on Sex with an X have lofty intentions but lack something that helps them over humps that would otherwise turn a song from dull to brilliant; the vanilla “Such a Fool” and “Poison Pen,” the schoolyard taunting “My God’s Bigger Than Your God,” and the gastro-metaphoric “Overweight but Over You” spring to mind. If The Vaselines have matured at all, it shows best in their choices of song subject. The couple can still pull off their trademark horny thing with fun flair, but it’s not as effective as when they detour into attractive, murky, toe-curling tracks. Listen closely enough and you will hear that the typical teenage tales of carnal lust have made way for disturbing thoughts, relationships in all of their troubling stages, domestic violence, and — with the oft-told tale of Jack the Ripper in “Whitechapel” — serial murder.
But for the most part, Sex with an X is back to familiar business, which is a good and bad thing. Thankfully, McKee and Kelly haven’t lost their snotty pop chops or their humor, as tracks like “Sex with an X” and “I Hate the 80’s” testify (the latter has a bouncy ripped-off Velvets riff and a message that hits close to home: I also “hate the 80’s ’cause the 80’s were shit”). “Turning It On” is another “classic” shuffling Vaselines track that deals with a blossoming relationship’s dos and don’ts, using both lovely harmonizing and playful back-and-forth by our prospective lovers. Bonus points are awarded for the nice, subtle spaghetti western licks thrown into the mix as well.
The Vaselines have never been ones to play frustratingly blue, dark for dark’s sake, or resort to predictable quiet/loud songwriting techniques, but sometimes you wish they would, just to change things up a bit. On tracks like “Mouth to Mouth” and “Ruined,” the band is as timeless and engaging as ever, giving fans those boy-girl interplays, nonchalant harmonies, and buzzsaw guitars that they have missed dearly over time. Sex with an X is a clear case of The Vaselines boldly going where they have gone before — most of the record more than stands up to many of the nuggets in their tiny back catalog — but maybe that’s okay; maybe it’s better to have them as they were than to not have them at all.