Oh, Grow Up!
With their excellent 2011 debut, What Did You Expect from the Vaccines, The Vaccines proved themselves one of the rare British music press darlings that actually deserves all the hype. A goodie bag of post-punk and indie references, What Did You Expect from the Vaccines was spearheaded by an opening salvo of instant-classic tracks that revealed influences from the Ramones to the Jesus and Mary Chain. No, it was not groundbreaking, but with Justin Young’s authoritative baritone out in front, it was catchy, confident, and convincing.
Now, just over a year later comes the follow-up, Come of Age. That seems like a pretty rushed release, until you consider that the Ramones released their first three albums over roughly the same time span.
The title of Come of Age, which features juvenile female facsimiles of the four band members on the cover, may be a tongue-in-cheek reference to the tendency of young bands to prove they are more “mature” on their second albums. And, thankfully, The Vaccines haven’t tried to grow up too quickly. If anything, Come of Age shies away from austere guitar drones and contains more catchy songs than the debut did. Out of the gate, you might well miss the rush of What Did You Expect from the Vaccines, but overall this is a more consistently solid effort. However satisfying a track like “Post Break-Up Sex” was, its moodiness was ham-fisted in a manner that a band can get away with only so many times. Come of Age finds Young no less angsty or self-effacing, but it rings more true.
The Vaccines have, without shame, called themselves a pop band overall, and here they prove it. There’s less post-punk and more pop-punk and power-pop, less navel gazing and more fist pumping.
The new album was produced by Ethan Johns, who is known for his work with such decidedly less-than-edgy acts as Tom Jones, Ryan Adams, and Crowded House. At first, the move might smack of a band and/or record company that was wary of a commercial sophomore slump. But Johns does a nice job. Come of Age all but does away with the reverb and chorus pedals that shrouded the debut, instead featuring a cleaner, clearer sound that is nonetheless loud and layered when it needs to be.
This clarity allows Freddie Cowan to emerge as an exceptional guitarist with a penchant for off-kilter tones and memorable riffs. On the chorus of opener “No Hope” he dials up a Johnny Marr-like arpeggio that would be downright gorgeous were it not juxtaposed against descending power chords. Elsewhere, he has fun with his ring modulator on “I Always Knew” and makes his instrument sound like a kazoo on the glammy “All in Vein”.
While you won’t find a song on Come of Age as irresistible as 2011’s “Norgaard”, several come close. Single “Teenage Icon” brings back strutting, Social Distortion-style cowpunk in a big way, while “Aftershave Ocean” eases into an effortlessly blissful, ‘70s easy listening-meets-grunge-pop groove a’la vintage Fountains of Wayne or Foo Fighters. Best of all, though, is “Weirdo”. A lumbering yet fascinating bundle of neuroses set to music, the track sneaks up on you like the creepy older guy at the park who, it turns out, only wants some friendly conversation. Young groans through a litany of shortcomings before telling a would-be lover, “Notwithstanding, I think we could work out just fine”. The chorus is simple yet brilliant, Young repeating “I don’t wanna let it go / You know I’m not a weirdo”, as Cowan’s wonderfully demented rubberband guitar emphatically suggests otherwise. Surely, the Vaccines have created a 21st century successor to Radiohead’s “Creep”…only much more fun.
Come of Age is not without its, erm, growing pains. Would-be hardcore track “Bad Mood” is a clunker. Young’s voice, an unqualified strength on the debut, is at times a liability here. Whether the issue is the vocal surgery he had between albums, the lack of reverb, or the desire to stretch his range, Young more than once stabs around meekly instead of taking charge. Thankfully, Cowan’s emergence mostly makes up for that.
Have the Vaccines gone soft? Well, there are enough pounding drums, buzzing guitars, and three-minute run times to keep fans of the debut oriented. And, just to prove they can, the band bring back the reverb and moodiness for closer “Lonely World”, a poignant dreampop anthem that recalls fellow countrymen Doves.
As all this name-dropping makes clear, Come of Age is hardly more groundbreaking than its predecessor. But it is more than the sum of its influences, too. Anyway, if the band keep up their work habits, they will soon enough have plenty of opportunity to expand their horizons on Album Number Three. The important fact is, Come of Age leaves you intrigued by that prospect while keeping you satisfied in the moment. The Vaccines might well grow up eventually. But if they keep producing like this, they need not be in a hurry.