The Vaccines are a group that seems to elicit either slobbering affection or almost incoherent hatred from the Indie/Alt community. On May 25th the band released their third album English Graffiti intending to run the challenge of not falling into the rut that is often established on any band’s third outing. They are not settling for what is comfortable and are looking to expand their horizons as English Graffiti moves towards a more mainstream effort. The resulting disc is not a grand slam but definitely shows the band is able to pull this off without the listener ending up loathing them.
The Vaccines were founded by Justin Hayward-Young (lead vocals and guitar) and Freddie Cowan (lead guitar and vocals) in 2010. Arni Arnason provides bass and vocals and Pete Robertson rounds out the quartet on the drums and adding vocals. The band’s sound has been compared to The Ramones and The Jesus and The Mary Chain. They have said their influences range from 50’s rock and roll, to 80’s American hardcore and just all around good pop music. English Graffiti was produced by Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, MGMT and Tame Impala). The band tested out their new material on live outings in India, Vietnam and Hong Kong. When Hayward-Young was asked about the direction of the new album, he explained that “We want to make something that sounds amazing next year and then terrible in 10 years.” Not the normal sentiment for most bands who usually endeavor to make the timeless masterpiece, but maybe The Vaccines are more pragmatic than most.
The band has the history of having conquered before they arrived. Even before their debut was released, What Did You Expect from the Vaccines, the Vaccines appeared with a live performance on Jools Holland marking the first time a band had appeared on that program prior to releasing a single. With What Did You Expect… the Vaccines were nominated for MTV’s Best New Band of 2011, had a NME cover, were nominated for the Critics Choice Brit Award and came in at number three on BBC sound in 2011. The band went on to released the follow up Coming of Age in 2012 which was certified gold in the UK and captured number 1 on the UK album charts. The EP Melody Calling again received positive reviews and was nominated for numerous Brit awards. The easy with which The Vaccines seemed to have risen to the top of the British music scene has caused backlash. Some say the band is over hyped by the straw clutching music industry. Other detractors feel the band has been pushed on the listening public by the UK music press. Proponents would respond that the band has just the right amount of distorted guitars and dystopic malaise to earn their position in the music hierarchy.
English Graffiti finds a band in transition; they appear to not be the same band that produced their prior output but they also have not arrived at the band they might become in the future. The album is genre encompassing with a noted departure from their prior works. This change up leads to some genre jumping within the confines of the album, but none of it is too jarring to prior fans of the band. The songs that create the most interest are those that move away from their well trodden path, but the band still displays pithy guitar pop and each selection does not over stay its welcome.
The first track, Handsome radiates a retro feel, and is more US radio friendly pop than prior outings. It channels The Ramones as interpreted by a jaunty poppy energy. The song itself send up the obsession of style over substance with the self involved lyric “Thank God I’m handsome” driving the point home.
Dream Lover has a funktacular gritty guitar echoing the better works of The Black Keys. The song then shapeshifts at the chorus eliciting a sound familiar to The Pixies’ “Magdalena 318”, while using the quiet/loud technique to full effect. The song is certainly reaching for something different. The only question is does it get there in the end?
Galloping percussion drives on Minimum Affection with a solid electro pop groove and a catchy banked vocal. The chorus “We don’t have a lot in common… you don’t even know my name… how am I suppose to hear you calling when I can’t under stand a word you say.” emphasizes the meaning of the title. 20/20 takes a stab at Brit Pop, with a fast paced pop punk vibe. There is energy galore with its catch chorus and pithy lyrics. They are walking the same ground as bands such as The Dexters and Drowners. The track expounds the title and seems to be about viewing a relationship for better or worse with perfect vision.
(All Afternoon)In Love is a song that was featured on BBC 6 when English Graffiti was the “Album of the Day”. The song falls under the category of relationship gone bad. It is a song that is a departure for The Vaccines with its trippy ballad feel. It doesn’t quite work. More promising is Denial which is a nice meld of chill-wave with a fuzzed up guitar and honeyed vocals. The song does a better job of looking at a relationship in turmoil. Sonically the song owes a hat tip to Foals “Total Life Forever”.
Another song that is a departure from the Vaccine’s norm is Want U So Bad. It is a smooth and dreamy tune with a pretty direct message of lust and need. There is some solid guitar work in the 2/3 of the song that shakes up the listener from the dream. It is a good idea to brace up as Radio Bikini is a quick full on sonic attack. If you didn’t know it was The Vaccines you would swear someone had dusted off a Ramones track that had been forgotten in a vault in Forrest Hills, NY. It shouts, “Let’s pogo around the room.”
Maybe I Could Hold You is a modern template alt ballad which again is a departure for the band, but not a rarity out there in the music universe these days. It is not woeful but a bit stale. Give Me a Sign is a catchy song exploring the frustration of not understanding what a girlfriend is trying hint to the protagonist. It is a little too Maroon 5 for my taste. It is smoothly done but could have been so much more. Unfortunately with these two songs the album runs out a bit of steam. The album concludes with the instrumental Undercover which has a nice piano coda to end the album.
English Graffiti is anything but a complaisant album. Where many bands would be happy to settle for what has gone before, this album does reaches beyond the band’s prior grasp mixing up styles. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but at least they are trying to find ways to sound fresh. The songs are more spread out and not as laser pointed in execution as prior releases. I personally think Coming of Age is the best effort from The Vaccines so far, but this album serves as a snapshot of where the band stands at this point in their career. It is more of a placeholder than a great leap forward. The end result being that prior fans might scratch there heads a little, and haters are probably still going to hate.