I was apprehensive about seeing the Vaselines when they passed through New York last year on a brief reunion tour. The thought of Frances McKee and Eugene Kelly bringing their filthy, funny and endearing songs to the stage more than 20 years after they were conceived, seemed to run in marked contrast to the youthful nature of the original material. My fears proved unfounded; seeing Kelly singing “It’ll take three to satisfy me/ ‘Cause I’m more of a man than you’ll ever be” (from “Rory Rides Me Raw”) was riotously entertaining. Further sharp witticisms and ribald jokes flowed between songs, with both members effortlessly tapping into everything that made this band great in the first place.
This package is designed to be the definitive word on the Vaselines’ recorded output. The first disc was released as Way of the Vaselines back in 1994, and was originally mastered from a cassette tape. Here, they sound polished and crisp, which is a remarkable change from other issues of these recordings. Presumably the band is happy sounding this way, but it often feels a little too clean. The grimy quality inherent in 10th generation cassette copies and scratchy vinyl releases had unwittingly become a vital part of their set up, and they sound naked without it. Sometimes, endless remastering of albums doesn’t produce the desired effect, but it would be churlish to complain too hard, especially as McKee and Kelly have (finally) been given this chance to release the songs as they intended.
The opening two tracks, “Son of a Gun” and “Rory Rides Me Raw,” are minor classics of their type, and it’s not difficult to see why Kurt Cobain was so enamored with them. The Vaselines display many of the same traits as Nirvana: a shared love of perverted humor; the simple desire to rock out; and a yearning for the innocence of youth, with McKee singing “The sun shines in the bedroom when you play” (from “Son of a Gun”) and Cobain pleading “Grandma take me home” (from “Sliver”). The Vaselines’ love of loud, distorted guitars marked them out from their cutie peers in the Glasgow scene. Just listen to the furious axe work on “Teenage Superstars,” which must have caused a few anxious glances among Pastels fans back in the late ‘80s.
There’s a gentler side to the Vaselines, as well (“Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” “No Hope”) and even a country influence (“Bitch”). What ties these disparate tracks together are the exchanges between McKee and Kelly, which range from beautifully sweet to utterly depraved. There’s a song titled “Rosary Job” on the second disc of this set, which depicts a particularly freakish sexual practice. The supplementary material on that second disc is far from essential. A batch of demos, which resemble creepy precursors to Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, and two averagely recorded live sets, will appeal to completists only.
This package is completed by an informative booklet that contains interviews with the band conducted by Stephen Pastel and Everett True. “We were a healthy young couple and liked the idea of sleaze,” says Kelly in the liner notes. “But if someone had offered us a threesome or wanted to shove a yam up my ass, we’d have run a mile.” That statement captures the essence of the Vaselines—funny and unafraid to immortalize their sex lives in song, but also voyeurs who enjoyed observing the seedier side of life. A precious band whose career has taken some deeply unusual turns, it seems oddly fitting that it’s taken over 20 years to properly reissue the Vaselines’ back catalog, despite having a clutch of songs covered by one of the biggest American rock bands of the last two decades.