Back in 2010, The Vaccines were the darlings of the British rock press; the latest in a long, erratic line of potential “Saviors of Rock and Roll.” Theirs was the kind of white hot rise that could never last: a quick takeover of their easily wooed home turf, built on impossible expectations and wishful thinking. It was a massive buildup that paid off for a while (their second album Come Of Age went to #1 in their native U.K.) but led to an almost inevitable backlash when they failed to single-handedly revive a whole genre.
A third LP (2015’s English Graffiti) and mediocre reviews followed, even as the band tried to distance themselves from the punky, massive-scale, melody-driven sound that first brought on all those misguided comparisons to The Strokes and The Ramones. “We lost sight of who we were and why we were there,” frontman Justin Young said in a statement, perhaps referencing their most recent LP, the very-produced and often guitar-less Graffiti. After the departure of drummer Pete Robertson, the band knew it was time to regroup. “We decided we needed to make it fun again.”
The result is Combat Sports, a high-flying LP that attempts to recapture the days when their songs were short and the guitar solos were loud, a reset button for the band and fans alike. The opening salvo of “Put It On A T-Shirt” and “I Can’t Quit” are all stomping kick-drums and soaring guitars, reminding us that The Vaccines know how to string together a fist-in-the-air anthem. Even Young’s notoriously apathetic voice, once described as sounding like the “thud of a fist through a wet paper bag,” has a fresh bite to it, hungrily tearing into the latter song’s front-loaded phrasing.
“Surfing In The Sky” takes over where lightening quick crankers like “Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra),” left off, down to the nonsense lyrics. Do we know what surfing in the sky is? No, but it doesn’t matter. Your brain basically leaves your body as soon as that hook hits. Even the love ballad of the bunch, “Young American,” has a touch of long-lost whimsy in the lovely melody and Young’s breathy vocals, suspended in the ether by airy harmonies and a whisper of organ.
Not that the album is free of missteps. “Your Love Is My Favorite Band” can lay claim to some of Young’s cheesiest lyrics (and his most awful title), and “Maybe (Luck Of The Draw),” fares even worse, the restrained synth-pop not enough to distract from the repetitiveness. But things go back on track with the noise-riot of “Nightclub,” and three songs of power-pop heaven. “Out On The Street” mixes falsetto vocals and Vapors-esque guitars as Young seems to be responding to critics as much as he’s talking to the girl in the song with lines like, “You called me a broken record/But I’ll never/Never be.” “Take It Easy” mixes infectious pop sugar with an undercurrent of self-loathing—a very New Wave combo that feels like Nick Lowe at his Jesus Of Cool peak—and “Someone To Lose” breezes in on an AM radio hook that’s not going to let you go any time soon.
They’re not doing anything new (as they said themselves with the title of their debut What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?), but there’s something about infectious melodies, sticky guitar riffs and relationship observations being made by an aloof Englishman that never gets old either, regardless of what highbrow bloggers or the U.K. press that turned against them the moment they admitted they had ambitions for success may have to say about it. I think that by now, we all know The Vaccines aren’t actually going to save rock and roll, but as someone who has experienced the sheer euphoria of blasting some of these new cuts at a completely inappropriate level, I haven’t given up hope quite yet.