On album number four, British pop/rockers the Vaccines get back to doing what they think they do best. Much of the time, they're right.
30 March 2018
Certainly, there is a power in knowing what you do best and doing it well. That is the Vaccines' angle on their fourth album, Combat Sports. They spent lots of time in the studio, wrote and recorded many songs, and finalized an album's worth, only to scrap it all. According to the band, the material just wasn't them. They started over and ended up with something they felt is more definitive, more of a statement of purpose and a consolidating of strengths. Or is it?
Over the past couple years, the Vaccines have had good cause to try and figure out exactly what they are. Their previous album, the English Graffiti (2015), was something of a departure. Much as he did with another established "rock" band, Spoon, producer Dave Fridmann helped the Vaccines expand beyond their traditional sound and explore lush atmospheres and psychedelic effects. English Graffiti was an excellent record, arguably the most consistent and satisfying thing they had done. But it didn't sell as well as their other albums and got a mixed reaction from fans. There was a subsequent lineup change, with a new drummer and added keyboardist.
Exit Fridmann and enter producer Ross Orton, who has worked with Arctic Monkeys and M.I.A. among others. Combat Sports does away with the layers and experimentations and focuses squarely on the kind of hyperkinetic pop/rock the band first made their name with. There is plenty of double-time pounding, then, but any post-punk moodiness has been replaced by a new wave sheen that fits in nicely with current retro trends. The Vaccines have said Combat Sports is their "heaviest" album. Even if that's literally true, it's also their lightest. It's sleek, streamlined, and radio friendly to the point where at first listen it seems to suffer from a serious lack of substance.
That's not really the case, either. Making it look easy is its own kind of art, and Combat Sports goes down about as easy as they come. That's partly due to Orton's no-nonsense production, but it's mostly a result of strong songwriting that is evidence of, well, a clear sense of purpose. In a word, the album is super. Super catchy. Super cool. Super breezy, even when it is super loud.
Combat Sports is anchored by a group of deceptively great pop songs. Lead single "I Can't Quit" is classic Vaccines, a pure wave of frustration bursting into buzzing power chords. "Put It On a T-Shirt" uses near-tropical keyboards and a tribal beat to achieve a Vampire Weekend-like degree of sophistication, at least musically. Justin Young keeps his lyrics relatively free of pretension, instead dealing with a by-now-familiar series of relationships that seem to have taken place completely in his head.
If there is any "new" type of direction explored on Combat Sports, it's the synthpop of "Maybe (Luck of the Draw" and "Your Love Is My Favourite Band". The latter especially has a groovy, bubblegum feel that is not too far removed from the likes of DNCE's "Cake by the Ocean". That will surely induce cringes from fans who fell for the Vaccines while thrashing to early songs like "Blow It Up", but "Your Love Is My Favourite Band" has enthusiasm and buoyancy that is tough to argue against.
The strongest material on Combat Sports delivers an intoxicating power pop rush of vintage-Cheap Trick quality. "Nightclub" features Freddie Cowan's pent-up, oddball guitar hook and a squishy rhythm. Best of all is "Out on the Street". With an energetic beat, smart arrangement, interlocking guitars, and an earworm falsetto chorus from Young, the song strikes the pop/rock balance more effectively than any other Vaccines tune to date. If there were an album called Cruisin '18, it would be Track One.
Even with its considerable pleasures, Combat Sports leaves something on the table. Closer "Rolling Stones", with its ominous horrorshow organ, is one of a few tracks that are nearly ruined by Young's un-punk, unconvincing yelling. At times it seems like Cowan, a talented guitarist, is using a random dork-rock solo generator.
Some bands experiment with broadening their sound, and it just doesn't work. It worked for the Vaccines, and in that context, a reactionary record like Combat Sports is something of a disappointment. But it's a super-fun one.