Front cover of ‘English Graffiti’
by Ed Biggs
It’s an oft-told story for British indie bands that doesn’t always end well – band finds critical and popular respect with first album, and carries on making hay while the sun shines with a similar second one. Band is knackered after constant touring and is confronted by an existential question – what do we do for our third? It’s a question that has stumped some pretty big names in the recent past – Kaiser Chiefs, Maxïmo Park and Razorlight are but a few – and now it’s time for London’s pop-punk revivalists The Vaccines to answer it. Can they add some extra dimensions to their rabble-rousing sound, or are they doomed to stay still while the world moves on without them? Lead singer Justin Young has already stated publicly that English Graffiti is “stylised pop” and that they intend it to “age badly”. Which sounds rather foreboding, but may actually play to one of their key strengths – their two highly enjoyable albums never really felt ‘new’ in any way, and were instantly trashy and throwaway in the best possible sense of the word.
They’ve brought in help from Dave Fridmann, a rather unexpected collaborator, on production duties, a guy who usually assists very different (usually American) indie bands with their sound. Fridmann’s usual technique is to select one instrument out of the mix and accentuate it to the point of distortion, at the expense of the others. The resultant treble-heavy sound works perfectly with psychedelically-tinged groups like Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips, with whom he regularly works, but the results on English Graffiti are a bit mixed. The Vaccines begin in familiar territory with the surf-pop stinger ‘Handsome’, which utilises their usual Ramones reference points, albeit with a slightly more judicious use of volume. This directness is immediately contrasted with the next track, the spectacular ‘Dream Lover’ with Freddie Cowan’s spangly, cheap-glam riff bearing a resemblance to Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Do I Wanna Know?’, replete with Queen theatrics and a great Young lyric about passionless hook-ups (“with a hollow embrace let’s go back to your place”). It’s a lot more obtuse and oblique as Vaccines tracks go, and the change suits them very well. The good work continues with the solid ‘Minimal Affection’ and the ridiculously fun ‘20/20’, which sounds like a harmonious mix of XTC and the Beach Boys. It’s apparent by this point that Fridmann is focussing on Cowan’s guitar, which festoons the latter track with joyous squeals of feedback.
It all starts to go a bit wobbly after this, however, with the bland Lennon-esque piano ballad ‘(All Afternoon) In Love’ falling several notches below what the ex-Beatle could do in his sleep. ‘Denial’ is a curious beast, with its fuzzy, crunchy acoustic guitar texture providing the base for a helium-light idea that floats away from the memory as soon as it’s finished. Better moments come in the shape of the creeping Cure-esque funk of ‘Want U So Bad’, with Arni Arnason’s bass taking centre-stage for a change. ‘Give Me A Sign’ is a much more straightforward power-pop ballad, but without the traditional pomp that this usually entails, whereas ‘Maybe I Could Hold You’ is a much stranger attempt at doing the same thing. And in the middle of all this is the two-minute bomb ‘Radio Bikini’, which finally picks up the pace just as English Graffiti begins to peter out. It’s possibly the weirdest things they’ve ever done, with Cowan’s compressed and distorted guitar solo resembling one of those laser sound effects on toy guns. It’s totally fun yet instantly disposable, in the finest tradition of this increasingly intriguing band.
This second half is full of mixed-up and weird ideas, to the Vaccines’ credit, but many feel half-finished and it has knock-on effect on the consistency of the whole album. English Graffiti isn’t really ‘stylised pop’ as they said, it’s ‘stylised Vaccines’. They sound like a tongue-in-cheek, ironic, “in quotation marks” version of themselves. This is genuinely refreshing in places, and promises that they can expand and improve upon this in the future, with a little bit more work. They make some rather unfashionable sonic influences, like ELO, Duran Duran and Arthur Russell, work in their favour. But particularly towards the end, the songs sound a little undercooked, as if they’ve taken the sketch of the song, let Fridmann do his work and left it at that. The studio tinkering probably won’t win over people cynical about their motives, but it will certainly be interesting to see what Vaccines fans make of it, as it’s easy to see English Graffiti as an opinion splitter. A qualified success. (6/10)
Listen to English Graffiti here!
Tags: album, Arni Arnason, Ed Biggs, English Graffiti, Freddie Cowan, Justin Young, Pete Robertson, review, The Vaccines, third
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