The tale of how Kurt Cobain’s devotion brought a whole new audience and popularity to Scottish ramshackle indie rockers The Vaselines is by now a well rehearsed one. The core duo, songwriters and vocalists Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee, were well served by their most famous fanboy, whose cover versions of Molly’s Lips, Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam and Son Of A Gun elevated them from the indie obscurity in which they would quite probably otherwise have languished, having broken up not long after the release of their full-length album, Dum Dum in 1989.
Officially back together since 2008, and now supplemented by a band comprising Stevie Jackson and Bob Kildea from Belle & Sebastian on guitar and bass, and Michael McGaughrin from The 1990s on drums, Sex With An X is – remarkably – only their second album of new material.
As the title might indicate, this is a surprisingly lubricious collection of songs. From their pleas to “Kiss me, I’m in season (…) Touch me with some feeling” on Mouth To Mouth to the cagey seduction dance of Turning It On, sex and lust abound. Rather than the same old take on affairs of the heart (and body), though, the duo have some interesting new ways of presenting such themes. Turning It On alternates his-and-her lines of vocal to convincingly depict a (potential) couple pacing around each other, simultaneously desiring and fearing each other: “All in my head, it’s fantasy then? / I’m plotting the time when I’ll see you again”. Poison Pen uses a similar device but to document the end of an affair, though the repartee here lacks a bit of zing. White Chapel again seems superficially to be about the pull of attraction, but the track’s title and closer attention to the lyrics (and haunted, minor key music) suggest that it is in fact a dialogue between Jack the Ripper and a prospective victim. A clever, troubling song.
It is often this disturbing edge that stops the more twee or cutesy elements from becoming too dominant. The Devil Inside Me is another dark song, its depiction of domestic violence from the male perspective, where the devil “made me push you against the wall” backed up by sinister Cramps-like slow guitar twangs. Even the ostensibly singalonga-love-song title track houses the confession of having “done too much of all the stuff that they said I shouldn’t touch”.
Musically, though, the mood is predominantly light. Songs like Ruined, Sex With An X and I Hate The ’80s are almost nursery rhyme in the simplicity of their tunes (if not in lyrical content, where the occasional non-child-friendly word can be found). This is a band that undoubtedly have a way with an earworm, and the album’s first single – I Hate The ’80s – showcases this well. It also demonstrates their ability to skirt the edges of “novelty record”, although in this instance they keep to the right side of corny. This wonderfully enjoyable evocation of the downside of the “day-glo” decade is bound to resonate with those that remember it. Less successful is Overweight But Over You, a contrived collection of food-related metaphors for a breakup that seems rather laboured. My God’s Bigger Than Your God, too, although admirable in intent, is ultimately overegged, its criticism of religious dogmatism coming across as both heavy-handed and simplistic.
Signing off with Exit The Vaselines, the band make an elegant, downbeat farewell. With much to enjoy on this collection that has preceded their goodbye it would be music’s loss if this were to once again genuinely signal the end of this quirky, characterful band.