Don McLean’s “American Pie” is one of the most irritating, ultimately trite hit songs of the rock ‘n’ roll era. Without it, what would drunk college kids have had to sing along to for the last 50 years? A lyric to that hackneyed composition is what inspired the title and sentiment of the sixth album from the English indie pop/rock outfit the Vaccines. Despite that troubling harbinger, Pick-Up Full of Pink Carnations is quite good, suggesting hope always exists for at least partial redemption.
On the first track, “Sometimes I Swear”, leader Justin Young declares, “Sometimes I swear / It feels like I don’t belong anywhere.” That is an understandable sentiment, given that he has been trying to front a guitar band while guitar-driven music has all but disappeared from the pop landscape. The last Vaccines long-player, Back in Love City (2021), and its follow-up Planet of the Youth EP (2022) saw them trying their hands at heavily programmed synthpop and losing their identity in the process. They lost more than that: Founding member and guitar wunderkind Freddie Cowan left before Pick-Up Full of Pink Carnations was recorded.
Pick-Up Full of Pink Carnations is the perhaps inevitable course correction, back-to-basics, return-to-form endeavor. Sonically, it is more like the Vaccines’ beloved debut, What Did You Expect From the Vaccines? (2011) than anything they have done in the interim. The songs are, for the most part, punchy and short; the ten-track album clocks in at just over half an hour. The tempos are mostly fast, the arrangements are watertight, and there is plenty of eighth-note strumming. Quiet/loud dynamics punctuated by thumping toms are employed generously and effectively. The drums are mixed to the verge of distortion, all the better to quite literally give the listener a buzz. Synths are used only for mood and embellishment.
The Vaccines quickly turned their backs on the angsty post-punk that laced the debut, but they offer hints on Pick-Up Full of Pink Carnations. “Another Nightmare” has a classic phased bass sound and moody Young lyrics about therapy and “pills and Percocets”. Melancholic highlight “Discount De Kooning (Last Ones Standing)”, with its wistful chorus, plaintively-strummed guitars, and sad synth, sounds like the end credits to a thousand John Hughes movies. “Anonymous In Los Feliz” is dour new wave. “Sunkissed” proves to be too much of a callback, however. Otherwise, a breezy bit of 1980s-flavored southern California pop, the song has a chorus that closely recalls the band’s early signature single “Post Break-Up Sex”.
As with the debut, Pick-Up Full of Pink Carnations comes front-loaded, leading off with some of the band’s strongest songs in ages. “Sometimes I Swear” begins starkly with Young’s wide-eyed crooning accompanied by only a guitar arpeggio before it bursts into a chugging whirlwind of a chorus. It is ready-made for the summer festival circuit. Flaunting earworm hooks and an instantly memorable two-tiered chorus, “Heartbreak Kid” is an instant addition to the shortlist of the Vaccines’ best singles. Meanwhile, “Lunar Eclipse” follows the quiet/loud template to near perfection, adding some quirky guitar effects.
As for those guitars, in Cowan’s absence, they are supplied by Young and multi-instrumentalist Timothy Lanham. The two do a pretty nice job, and if Cowan’s more restless, cowpunk-inspired moments are missed, their absence only adds to the album’s streamlined, buttoned-down sound. Producer Andrew Wells (Phoebe Bridgers, Bebe Rexha) runs the boards, and previous associate (and alternative mainstay) Dave Fridmann handles the mix. Together, they deliver a great-sounding record that stays out of the band’s way and lets them play to their strengths.
Even with its taut construction, Pick-Up Full of Pink Carnations sags just a bit in the middle. The downside of the renewed focus is that some of the songs sound similar and struggle to assert themselves. Young is a thoughtful and occasionally clever lyricist, but still can deliver a groaner like “I just need a little time / To fatten up the fish I’m fryin'”, and he still tends to get shouty. All of this aside, it is good to hear the Vaccines being a guitar band again—and an excellent one, at that.