The Vaccines - English Graffiti

by Rich Morris Rating:6 Release Date:2015-05-25

Along with Arctic Monkeys, The Vaccines are just about the only indie band that can shift more than tuppence ha’penny worth of units in the UK these days. Perhaps not coincidentally, both bands have edged closer to a mainstream rock sound since their debuts, creating music which seems tailor-made more for blasting out of the car stereo than busting moves at the local indie night.

The Vaccines third album, English Graffiti, feels aptly named. Not only is it apparently a play on American Graffiti, George Lucas’ quintessential US coming-of-age saga, it also references Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin’s era-defining double-album of globe-straddling cock-rock. For The Vaccines, a band who adopted the regulation rocker uniform of double denim a few years back, the appeal of such classic touchstones is obvious.

It’s to their credit that they’ve attempted to assimilate such influences into their English garage-rock sound, but it might also be why this album ultimately falls a little short of Rock Valhalla. While ‘Dream Lover’ kicks off with an ostentatiously meaty rock riff, for example, Justin Young’s vocals are more dreamy shoegaze kid than shrink-wrapped denim screamer. The track’s filled out by some interesting ping-pong percussion, an early sign of this album’s other musical influence: a light dusting of Duran Duran-style synthy yacht-rock.

‘Denial’ is a perfect example of how the band meld both poles: moody, almost chillwave verses sway sensually before chunky, fuzzed-up guitars crash in for the chorus. It’s all held together by honeyed harmonies which would do The Eagles proud.

Perhaps in a conscious effort to reassure fans who loved the simpler bubblegum-rock charms of their debut, first single and opening track ‘Handsome’ sounds like The Ramones covering Plastic Bertrand’s ‘Ca Plane Pour Moi’, and crashes out before it reaches three minutes. However, besides the fuzzy surf-rock of ‘Radio Bikini’, such uncomplicated, deceptively skilful pop charms are in the minority, on an album which bears its arena-rock trappings like a Chinese character tramp stamp.

Almost every song here comes with a wacking great, pump-the-air chorus. The impressive thing about The Vaccines is that, unlike, say, The Killers or Kings of Leon, they’ve pulled this off with making you want to slap them. However, this might just be because it remains hard to pinpoint any real character, any grit or bite to The Vaccines music.

When a strutting, show-off synth fanfare enlivens the end section of ‘Give Me a Sign’, it’s a cheeky homage to the 80s hair metal likes of Van Halen and Europe, just the right side of ‘so uncool it’s cool’, but you find yourself wishing the band would go further, really live out their rock star fantasies the way U2 did with Achtung Baby. I mean, it’s not like The Vaccines are in danger of losing cool points here – they never really had any, so it should be death or glory.

Instead, the likes of ‘Maybe I Could Hold You’ and ‘Minimal Affection’ are decent but not outstanding, too tasteful when they should be flashy and brazen. There’s also a suspicion they may have overstretched their songwriting chops a little. ’20 20’ is literally just a chorus and a hooky riff with some gimmicky nothing stuffed in between. Meanwhile, ‘(All Afternoon) in Love’ manages to perfectly capture the sound of a solo Lennon piano ballad without having much of a tune beneath the syrupy production.

Young recently claimed in NME that the band wanted to make an album that sounded great right now and terrible in 10 years. Instead, they’ve made a record which would have sounded like hot shit 30 years ago and sounds perfectly fine right now. It’s hard to begrudge The Vaccines for wanting to shift things up a gear and rock like their idols. Next time, however, perhaps they could turn it all the way up to 11. 

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