Release Date: May 26, 2015
Record label: Columbia
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Rock
Poor The Vaccines. Every review of every album is cursed to feature the same phrase. What exactly do we expect from them? Now more than ever, though, it’s a valid question. While their first two albums saw them embark on a steep upward curve that culminated in a Number One, certified gold record; with their 2013 ‘Melody Calling’ EP they stepped firmly into critically acclaimed territory.
The reinvention the Vaccines promised on their second album, Come of Age, has been delivered by their third. Handsome, Radio Bikini and 20/20 offer the sort of high-octane, Ramones-meet-the-Everly Brothers material that could have fitted on their debut – but producers Dave Fridmann and Cole MGN add cut-up noise and the whirring energy of what sounds like a food processor to transform the band’s trademark sonic palette. Elsewhere, the songs themselves undergo the makeover, as dreamy pop tunes reverberate with unlikely influences, from ELO to Duran Duran.
The Vaccines’ ambitions for their third album are a little grander than the generic old chestnut of “we made this record for ourselves and if anybody else likes it, that’s a bonus”. Instead, as frontman Justin Young told NME a few months back, “we wanted to make something that sounds amazing next year and then terrible in 10 years!” Those words might read like a throwaway soundbite he’ll live to regret, but he actually makes a good point about how all albums, even the sacred cows, eventually show their age. People get hung up on creating something ‘timeless’, but music increasingly exists and is experienced in the moment, not in perpetuity.
Have the Vaccines really survived being labeled as the Great White Hope of British rock by the British rock press? Such a mixed blessing certainly has sunk a hundred other bands. Yet here the quartet are, intact after four years and three albums, sounding more confident than ever. How did they do it? The basic explanation is really quite simple. With their sophomore album, Come of Age (2012), the Vaccines established they wanted nothing more than to be a pop-rock band.
With two albums of real rock under their belts, the Vaccines take a left turn toward trashiness on their third record, 2015's English Graffiti. Back on their 2011 debut What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?, the bandmembers affected a studied detachment, a conscious decision to keep themselves at arm's length from either their hooks or their attitude. Four years later, they don't hesitate to embrace the tackier elements of being in a rock & roll band.
On their third album, English Graffiti, the Vaccines have redirected their ambitions. Since they emerged from west London in 2010, the four-piece have studiously avoided trying too hard with their blunted rock and disaffected lyrics that made frontman Justin Young’s internal life sound devoid of joy or rage. Their only aims appeared to be careerist ones along the lines of getting "indie back in the charts," based on the notion of the honest underdog vanquishing pop’s preening one percent.
Heralded as indie saviours by a straw-clutching music press when they emerged in 2011, the Vaccines have weathered the hype better than most. The London quartet comfortably fill arenas and the appeal of their pithy guitar pop is largely undiminished on their third album. They stick to straightforward pleasures: opener Handsome is a curt, Ramonesy racket that rattles past in barely two minutes.
The Vaccines have always been completely bereft of irony. They first introduced themselves as a band of snotty pub rockers whose oversimplified anthems qualified them as good candidates to write the next Teenage Kicks. Cheekily brash and unwisely confident in the way young people can be, they juggled around themes with just the right amount of PG-13 edge to cause a commotion - they ruminated on the advantages and disadvantages of post break-up sex in sing-a-long fashion, cleverly positioned rhyming schemes of canonical writers with that good ol’ macho adage of picking up a chick at a bar, and simply cried out the advantages of trippin’ out for the weekend instead of worrying about relationships.
Somehow The Vaccines have become one of the biggest 'indie' bands in the country without anyone really noticing, and if you’re the kind of person who gets their cultural kicks from exciting rock movements, that should concern you. There was a time when such a meteoric rise, from the toilet circuit to arenas in a few years, would be a flag waving, all consuming affair. The Vaccines? Just another decent indie rock band, slugging through the festivals with their choruses and their riffs and their denim jackets.
Album number three is often a defining one, be that a crowning glory like Blur’s Parklife, a delightful reinvention such as The Beastie Boys Check Your Head, or prove the law of diminishing returns as Oasis did with Be Here Now. So when The Vaccines announced that their third, English Graffiti, was about the sense of disconnection in 2015, would age badly and its genre was stylised pop - turning their back on their previous allegiance to classism - they appeared to be headed for reinvention. The first thing to say is that it sounds and looks fantastic.
The Vaccines have always made a concerted effort to create the most timeless version of garage rock. For their third album, English Graffiti, the British group went completely in the opposite direction. Enlisting two producers, Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, MGMT) and Cole M. Greif-Neill (Beck, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti), The Vaccines cover the experimental spectrum with Fridmann’s traditional approach and Greif-Neill’s modern one.