Modern indie bands who call themselves “rock ’n’ roll” and are not able or willing to fall back on the nostalgic state fair circuit are having a tough go of it these days. Take the British quintet the Vaccines, for example. They have always been a guitar/bass/drums-type band who play rock music with a healthy appreciation for pop. Their fifth album, Back in Love City, is their most convincing attempt yet at convincing the world they are a pop band that just happen to use guitars.
Are such distinctions between “rock” and “pop” really even material? The answer is yes, and the difference is in the production. The press release for Back in Love City hails it as the Vaccines’ “heaviest record so far”. But there’s a catch. It is possible to yell using a quiet voice, and that’s what the Vaccines are doing here.
Like other indie rock bands struggling to retain commercial and cultural relevance, the band hired studio hands with rich histories in radio-friendly pop. Back in Love City was co-produced by British electronic musician Fryars and the Swedish pop svengali Daniel Ledinsky, whose credits include Shakira, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Zara Larsson. Both men also are songwriters-for-hire and get extensive co-writing credits on Back in Love City.
Therefore, while tracks like “Wanderlust”, “XCT”, and “Bandit” pound along and each build to thrashing, guitar-heavy choruses, everything is processed, filtered, and mixed in such a way that it buzzes by one’s ears without causing much trouble. In fact, most everything on Back in Love City is overproduced. Echoes, effects, explosions, blurps, and yelps abound. The rhythm section is mainly programmed or mixed to sound as such. The band would say they are pushing boundaries, expanding horizons, and spicing things up. Of course, they would, and who could blame them? It just so happens that all this movement creates more sheen and commercial capital.
None of this is in itself a problem. If anything, it is a means of survival. And certain Vaccines hallmarks remain intact— Justin Young’s bemused semi-detached, semi-spoken vocals, Freddie Cowan’s spaghetti-western guitar licks, a general sense of nervy energy. But some of these are beginning to sound a bit too familiar. The breakdown and jangly guitar that introduce the chorus of “Headphones Baby” is by this point almost a Vaccines cliché, even if the sweetness of the tune makes it worthwhile.
“Jump Off the Top” has plenty of infectious power-pop energy but less than half the freshness of earlier ditties like “Norgaard” and “Teenage Icon”. Young has never been afraid of dropping some real clunkers in search of a pithy line, but “When I exorcise my demons / I just take ‘em to the gym” might be beyond the pale.
Ironically, when Back in Love City ditches all the would-be heaviness and stops chasing streaming numbers, it offers up a couple of real gems. The moody, brooding “El Paso” sets Cowan’s delicate, nylon-stringed arpeggio against a galloping two-step rhythm and ghostly synths that shimmer like a desert mirage. “Who wants to live like this?” Young asks in a softened voice, and it’s all the most genuinely affecting thing the Vaccines have released to date.
The unexpected “Heart Land” is not far behind, though, a sincere and touching ode to the country where the album was recorded. Young proclaims, “I’m not giving up on my love for you, America… land of hope and paradox”, and the music, for once, seems comfortable in its own shoes, ebbing and flowing naturally. The guitars still jangle, the rhythm is still punchy, but these familiar sounds are put in a new context for the band, and it’s one complemented by the production rather than overshadowed by it.
The Vaccines have said Back in Love City is a concept album of sorts, with the songs meant to invoke the titular metropolis as a destination for good vibes and escape from the chaos. That sounds like a great place, but they shouldn’t forget that getting there is half the fun.