Live: The Vaselines first ever L.A. gig at the El Rey
Playing one of two new songs Sunday night at the El Rey, Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee of the Vaselines seemed determined to distinguish themselves from the dozens of other bands currently working the lucrative reunion-rock circuit.
"Hey, we got nothing to say," they sang together over a rush of tangled post-Velvet Underground guitars, "but we're saying it anyway."
Part of the late-'80s Scottish indie-pop scene that eventually produced Teenage Fanclub, the Vaselines spent its brief original run in hipster obscurity, issuing a pair of singles and one full-length, 1989's "Dum-Dum," before breaking up that same year.
The group's music mingled the sloppy and sleazy with the catchy and sweet, examining adult issues from a childlike perspective but minus the cloying naivete typical of many of its indie-pop successors.
Kelly and McKee were cynics and proud of it: "I'm in hell and the angels cry 'cause I'm trying to sell my soul," they sang in "Teenage Superstars," "and when Mom complains about my clothes, I say, 'Hey, Mom, leave me alone.' "
Kurt Cobain of Nirvana was a vocal Vaselines fan and covered several of the band's songs (including "Son of a Gun" and "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam"), which led the Seattle label Sub Pop to release a retrospective in 1992. Last year the band re-formed and played a handful of shows in Europe and the United States, culminating in an appearance at Sub Pop's 20th anniversary festival; earlier this month the label released "Enter the Vaselines," an expanded edition of the previous compilation that features a disc of demos and live tracks.
Sunday's show, the Vaselines' first ever in Los Angeles, launched a weeklong North American tour that wraps next Monday in Brooklyn, and as that new song about having nothing to say suggests, they haven't grown any less honest or sly with age.
Backed by drummer Michael McGaughrin (of the Glasgow band 1990s) and bassist Bob Kildea and guitarist Stevie Jackson (both on loan from Belle and Sebastian), Kelly and McKee attacked the vintage material with renewed enthusiasm, singing about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll as though they'd discovered them only yesterday.
"This one's for all you Bible bashers out there," Kelly deadpanned before playing "Sunbeam," the Vaselines' most tender tune. Earlier he'd introduced "The Day I Was a Horse" by explaining that the song is "about taking LSD and thinking you're a horse."
Beyond a handful of altered vocal harmonies and the occasional solo from Jackson, the music didn't sound terribly different from the way it sounds on "Enter the Vaselines" -- a wise choice, given the structural efficiency and wall-of-fuzz ebullience of the original arrangements.
Neither new tune made a huge impression, but then this has never been a band seemingly concerned with huge impressions. "I think we've all peaked now," McKee admitted near the end of the band's 70-minute set, with one song left to go.
If she was right, no one seemed to mind in the least.
Photo credit: Claire Stewart