One of the truly great things about growing up a fan of Nirvana is being privy to Kurt Cobain’s excellent albeit wildly diverse taste in music.
From a personal standpoint, there are three musical acts I can personally thank Mr. Cobain for putting me onto during my high school and college years. The first is the Melvins, whose primary members King Buzzo and Dale Crover were school-age friends of Kurt’s, and whose strong connection with the grunge icon helped them land a short-lived major label record deal (not to mention a permanent spot in my Top 5 heavy metal acts of all time). The second artist I can attribute being hipped to thanks to Kurt is deep blues giant Leadbelly, who I am a little embarrassed to say I’d never heard of before Cobain’s heart-stopping rendition of Lead’s version of the Appalachian folk standard “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”. It appeared initially on Mark Lanegan’s little-revered 1990 solo debut The Winding Sheet and then later for Nirvana’s now-legendary 1994 taping of MTV Unplugged, where they also paid homage to a little-known Scottish indie band from the 1980s whom Kurt seemed to have single-handedly cast in the American spotlight to be discovered by out-of-the-loop kids like myself.
That band is Edinburgh’s the Vaselines. And, thanks to Cobain and Nirvana’s tireless championing of their music through loving covers of their songs “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” (one of the great highlights of that Unplugged taping), “Molly’s Lips”, and “Son of a Gun”, a whole generation of music fans beyond the elite circle of ‘zine critics, record shop clerks, college radio DJs, and Scottish twee snobs added Sub Pop’s 1992 stateside anthology of Vaselines music, The Way of the Vaselines: A Complete History (a direct result of Cobain’s boisterous support), to their growing alt-rock tape collections back in the early-to-mid-1990s. The band in and of itself boasts one of the most unique templates perhaps in the history of guitar-based pop music. At root, they were steeped in the sweet-natured melodies and singsong harmonies commonplace in the Scottish twee scene from which they sprouted. In fact, the group’s chief principles, Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee, were something akin to luminaries of this Scottish crowd that spawned such acts as BMX Bandits, the Pastels, and eventually Belle and Sebastian.
What made the Vaselines stand out from the pack, and head into the hearts of diehard punkers like Cobain, was Kelly and McKee’s ability to take the seemingly sweetest ditties and bathe them in drenching amp fuzz and sex-fueled lyrics heavy on sly double entendres, such as the ode to a rather large cat they called “Monsterpussy”, or Kelly’s head-scratching “The Day I Was a Horse”. Their sound was an all-encompassing combination of Moe Tucker-led Velvet Underground, Orange Juice, the Shangri-Las, Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra, and Psychocandy-era Jesus & Mary Chain whose brilliance beamed through the murk of practically no-fi production. Needless to say, if anyone ever wondered where the Moldy Peaches stole their shtick, look no further than the Vaselines’ discography, which has now been completely revamped by Sub Pop as part of their amazing Deluxe Edition reissue campaign mining the best of their championed back catalog.
Enter the Vaselines essentially takes what was compiled back in ‘92, which included the group’s first two EPs, 1987’s Son of a Gun and 1988’s Dying for It, and their sole LP, 1989’s genius Dum-Dum, and tacks on two live shows and a smattering of demos as a bonus disc. For those of you who already own The Way of the Vaselines, this 2009 upgrade’s imperativeness to own is strictly based on your own personal allegiance to the music of Kelly and McKee.
If you are absolutely hardcore about the Vaselines and have been waiting to hear the barely-listenable demo for “Son of a Gun” and the official release of such previously unrecorded tracks as “Rosary Job” and “Red Poppy”, not to mention a pair of shows—one from December 1986 of Kelly and McKee backed by a drum machine that sounds like it was recorded on a cheap hand-held tape recorder, and the other from 1988 with a full band in tow that is of soundboard or even radio broadcast quality—Enter the Vaselines is exactly what you have been waiting for. The gorgeous packaging and extensive liner notes, which include an enlightening pair of recent interviews with Kelly and McKee conducted by longtime ally Stephen McRobbie of the Pastels and renowned British rock journalist Everett True, also makes this collection a must-own for the Vaselines fanatic.
However, if you are more like me and consider yourself to be a more casual appreciator of the Vaselines who was turned onto them strictly through the Nirvana association, Enter the Vaselines might not exactly propel you to replace your trusty copy of The Way of the Vaselines just yet, and perhaps you might want to hold onto your scarce, hard-earned dollars for the next Sub Pop deluxe edition to come down the pike.
If the deciders of such fare over at the label are reading this and possibly taking requests, might I suggest revisiting your long-out-of-print Billy Childish anthology I Am the Billy Childish, or perhaps a deluxe edition of the Afghan Whigs’ Congregation. Just a thought…
// Notes from the Road
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