I was recently in Portland performing at a festival at Pendarvis Farm in Happy Valley, which, to digress for a moment, was fantastic — the vibes were undeniably good, the atmosphere unquestionably chill. In the halcyon swale bordering Portland, Clackamas, Damascus, Pleasant Valley, and Sunnyside, near an extinct volcano, surrounded by an unlikely combination of outdoorsy hippies and indoorsy hipsters, I met a writer for the Portland Mercury named Mark, whom I wound up talking to for hours throughout the weekend, randomly bumping into him at the festival’s various stages.
We agreed that important music was still being made and then that music criticism had gotten lazy. Young writers have a tendency to either latch onto and reiterate what their better-known peers are saying, or take a staunch position of disagreement just because — in both cases, as a former editor of mine would complain, never adding to the conversation. It’s one thing to say a band sucks, but why do they suck? And it’s just as important to give the reasons why a band does not suck. The critic with the better argument tends to have a little more wisdom, a broader scope of reference or, at the very least, a bigger record collection. They may even inspire you to check out something you’ve never heard before — going down the rabbit hole, as it’s known in the biz.
The purpose of this exercise (understanding music) is important for musicians, too — though I’d argue kind of less so. Unless you’re playing in a cover or tribute band, it’s not such a bad thing to be under the impression that you wrote the riff for “Blitzkrieg Bop” before you ever heard the Ramones. It’s the critic’s job to contextualize why that might have happened, not just to tweet that it’s retarded.
I really wish I’d heard this new Vaccines EP Melody Calling before I met Mark. It’s angsty, it’s annoyingly catchy, it’s easy to call “obvious” and even easy to pay no heed to. Why should anyone bother? At least as far as my conversation with Mark was concerned, the Vaccines already surpassed any sort of honorable mention from blogosphere stalwarts — this is a band that has opened for the motherfucking Rolling Stones. At the very worst they’ve done the best they can do: glass ceiling reached. What I would have said to Mark is something like, “This Vaccines record is good because it’s a clear portrayal of a band that has taken good notes throughout their career.”
The West London group, NME favorites, released two albums back to back: 2011’s debut What Did You Expect from the Vaccines and last year’s Come of Age. Melody Calling is just an EP, but it’s an overblown pop snapshot: unwieldy guitars paired with mellow vocals, big drums and slick bass lines are present throughout and yet each track delivers something the one before it lacks. “Do You Want a Man” is a heart-scorching radio hit — it could be a Four Tops or Supremes cover. “Everybody’s Gonna Let You Down” is more polished and less frenzied than anything else on the EP. It definitely stands out among the more excited tracks as a bit more self-aware, which I may have said to Mark was a “bad thing” and maybe I do think that but like I said to him, it’s not exactly fair to reduce the sonic value of a band to the other bands you think they sound like.
I hate the weird bridge sort of thing going on in “Do You Want a Man” but I love the solo that comes after it so much that I can forgive it. It’s as noisy as it is radio-friendly and, while you should just listen to the damn thing yourself and decide, the thing I would have said to Mark is that what’s good about it is that it showcases the efforts of a band completely in control of their sound — to an almost obsessive degree. But why include two versions of that song on an EP? Who the hell in their right mind wants to listen to the same song twice? Because both versions exist so separately from each other that to have only one to choose from would be unfair.
The songs on Melody Calling keep me pressing play over and over again (at least the first two), and that’s more or less the standard I’ve set for what makes music special.