Few bands have staged successful comebacks, and for the purposes of this argument I will define a successful comeback as a critically and (indie-level) commercially successful album after a 10-year (or greater) absence. Mission of Burma did it with onoffon. Dinosaur Jr’s original trio did it with Beyond. Superchunk, though theirs was only a nine-year gap, did it recently with Majesty Shredding. Ten times as many bands have failed. *coughstoogescough!* Sorry, I’m getting over something here.
The Vaselines have done it with Sex with an X.
They were a band that actually needed to make a comeback because no one heard of ‘em the first time around. They only existed for two years (’87-’89), played mostly in the UK (they’re from Glasgow) and only released one proper album (‘89’s Dum Dum, the inspiration behind the name of the Dum Dum Girls) and a couple 7”s. Yet, miraculously, their legend lived on thanks in no small part to Kurt Cobain. Whether or not you liked the guy, his band, or what’s happened to their legend since his death, you gotta give the guy credit: He had excellent taste and shouted his favorite unknown artists’ names from the rooftops (Daniel Johnston, Meat Puppets, the Wipers). Nirvana covered no band more than the Vaselines, and Incesticide and Unplugged in New York were the places I--and thousands of others--first heard the Scottish duo’s songwriting. Cobain even named his daughter after Frances McKee.
The success of their comeback second album is due to their original work being so wide in scope. From the fuzzy rockers like “Son of a Gun,” “Dum-Dum” and “Teenage Superstars” to ballads like “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” to the lo-fi dance-party of their “You Think You’re a Man” cover, they did anything they wanted then, giving them the freedom to do anything they want now. Expectations of quality on Sex with an X were low, sure (by myself included), but to their advantage there were no stylistic expectations either.
Sex with an X starts with a rocker and immediately obliterates all of my doubts of high quality. “Ruined” has the same pounding floor tom and fuzz of old cuts like “Dying for It” but the production and new backing band tighten everything up. They were only lo-fi by necessity the first time around, so the punchy new sound is welcomed. The title track peels back the fuzz in place of a dirty jangle and acoustic strums, and is one of the catchiest songs on the album and encapsulates the duo’s nice-but-naughty aesthetic: "Feels so good it must be bad for me... / You look so right you must be wrong for me."
McKee and Eugene Kelly still love singin’ ‘bout the same great topics as before--sex (obviously), religion, cute shit, and umm...sex--and bring a lot of great one-liners to the table here. “Overweight But Over You” has the giggle-inducing chorus of "Hey fat mama, I’m a fat man" and also "You twist me ‘round like some old spaghetti." More socially conscious hilarity comes with the twangy two-step of “My God’s Bigger Than Your God,” which utilizes one of their favorite topics (sex) as a metaphor for commenting on another (religion). They rail against the cash-grab nostalgia of recent years with “I Hate the 80s,” which has the lone synths of the album and my favorite chorus hook: "What do you know? You weren't there / It wasn't all Duran Duran Duran Duran / You want the truth? Well this is it / I hate the '80s 'cuz the '80s were shit." “Whitechapel” shows Kelly and McKee bouncing gently off each other and is one of the prettiest songs of the set, though it does get wonderfully "ugly" in the instrumental bridges.
I’m not crazy about the low-key, reverb-heavy “The Devil’s Inside Me,” but it’s mostly because it goes a minute too long. “Turning It On” has a pretty chorus and I love the 6/8 sway, but the verses are a bit pointless. “Poison Pen” is a little bland for a "rocker," though there is nothing inherently wrong with it.
They didn't hit it out of the park, but I can say with all certainty that the Vaselines fulfill all the criteria I've set for a successful comeback. A must-have for fans of their original work, Sex with an X reintroduces the band to the world and this time people can actually go out and see ‘em. Come to Indiana please.