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Better Than: Listening to any other couple bicker for an hour straight.
On Friday night at a packed Bell House (149 7th Street) in Gowanus, Scottish indie royalty the Vaselines crashed through more than twenty songs in an hour and a half — impressive for a band with only three full albums to its name, one that tends to end each song with long and increasingly awkward details about the past sexual relationship between its two members, Frances McKee and Eugene Kelly.
Opening for the Vaselines was Philadelphia three-piece Amanda X. Their crunchy guitars, high-speed drumming, and sweet melodies, twinned with babydoll dresses, Docs, and bright pink hair, hit the right note for those in the crowd who discovered the Vaselines in the early Nineties and are looking forward to seeing a re-formed Sleater-Kinney next month.
The Vaselines opened with “The Day I Was a Horse,” from first album Dum-Dum, then launched into the scuzzy pop of “High Tide Low Tide,” from their third and most recent release, V for Vaselines. McKee dedicated the song to a guy she’d met earlier at the merchandise table who was incredulous her band had a new album out. “It just slipped out,” she said. “And nobody seemed to notice.” That’s not quite true: V for Vaselines — which featured their usual cache of catchy three-minute wonders, but with a punk edge that is said to have been inspired by a Ramones cover band — got a lot of fair, if not great, press when it came out in October. Enough crowd members were singing along with the new stuff to prove it had made an impression.
Kelly was toned down in a striped shirt and jeans, while McKee sported a fringed leather jacket — a holdover from the last album cover — and a skirt slashed to the thigh. “It’s my Dr. Spock–meets–David Bowie look,” she told the audience. “More like British Airways circa 1985.” Kelly countered, and they took a vote from the audience to determine who was right. McKee won, and retained the upper hand in the duo’s innuendo-heavy back-and-forth throughout the entire set.
With song titles like “Sex Sux” and “Monsterpussy,” we all know that the Vaselines enjoy juvenile humor. Live, they take this to another level, ribbing each other about their sexual prowess (they split up in 1989), discussing Kelly’s “organ,” cracking jokes that go from hilarious to feet-shiftingly awkward, and elevating squabbling to an art form.
Backed by some of Glasgow’s newer talent — drummer Michael McGaughrin of Teenage Fanclub, bassist Graeme Smillie, from Olympic Swimmers, and guitarist Scott Paterson, from Sons & Daughters — the set is a healthy mix of the past two albums and the classics found on Sub Pop’s 1992 compilation, The Way of the Vaselines: A Complete History. Highlights include the purring “Monsterpussy,” the new “Earth Is Speeding” — in which McKee declares her preference for a slower pace of life — and “Molly’s Lips,” for which members of Amanda X are invited back onstage to play the unforgettable clown horn.
A song titled “I Hate the 80s” (from 2010’s Sex With an X) may seem to fly in the face of what is in large part a nostalgia show. But when you hear the two harmonize over the line “I hate the Eighties/’Cause the Eighties were shit,” you feel that they really mean it. The era of New Romanticism and power ballads was not kind to these lighthearted indie kids, who called it a day immediately after releasing their first album in 1989. The Vaselines may have forever been that small band that could, if they’d only bothered to — if Kurt Cobain had not professed his love, covered three of their songs, and convinced Sub Pop to release their back catalog.
For all the banter and gibes, and despite the fact that they introduced it with a joke about starting their own money-grabbing religion, “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” inspired a kind of reverence. A delicate song that sounds close to cracking apart, to an audience that most likely first heard the lines “Don’t expect me to die” sung by Cobain, “Jesus” carries a heavy weight and a stillness falls, briefly, over the room.
The moment passed and they returned to ribbing one another. Kelly introduced “Crazy Lady” by looking in McKee’s direction and asking, “Who do you think this is about?” I prefer the theory it’s actually about the late Margaret Thatcher, who was especially reviled in Glasgow.
“We are the Vaselines,” Kelly declared before the set’s final song, “Son of a Gun.” “And we have been for a very long time.”
Given their on-and-off status and scarce output, it’s hard to tell whether or not there will still be a Vaselines after this tour. The band approach their work with humor and humility; they seem to actually enjoy themselves and not take anything too seriously. Let’s hope they stick around for a while longer.
Overheard: “You see, that song, ‘Molly’s Lips,’ that’s theirs. They came up with it.” Drunk guy stating the obvious.
Random Notebook Dump: I do not need to hear any more about Eugene Kelly’s dick — this before the pair launch into a story about an ill-fated tryst that ended with him deciding to “finish myself off.” Enough!
Critical Bias: As a native of Scotland, I am conditioned to carry a sense of misplaced pride in my wee country’s outsize musical output.
The Day I Was a Horse
High Tide Low Tide
Sex With an X
One Lost Year
Such a Fool
I Hate the 80s
Earth Is Speeding
Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam
Devil Inside Me
Let’s Get Ugly
Son of a Gun