Let’s face it: in 2021, the clout of the indie rock boy band is dead. This wasn’t the case ten years ago, when you couldn’t read any issue of the NME without some new group of fresh-faced white male twenty-somethings claiming to be the group who would surely pump some life into rock and roll’s limp carcass. Around the release of their debut, The Vaccines, toted by the British music press as a ‘believe the hype’ amalgamation of The Strokes and The Ramones, had their turn to gurn on the pages of Q magazine as indie boy bands did back then.
A decade on, when indie rock’s pioneers are now female powerhouses like Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, What Did You Expect from The Vaccines seems a lot less like the reinvigoration of a genre that it was deemed to be at the time and more so the last gasp of life for a certain breed of rock music that was beginning to go stale. Yet I find myself stressing the word ‘beginning’, because for all of its derivative and generic elements this is an excellent record.
It’s difficult to discuss What Did You Expect without referring to its influences. The Vaccines generously pay respect to the rock and roll gods of old, with beating drums providing rhythms that sound like an attempt to summon the spirit of Tommy Ramone and reverb-drenched guitars not dissimilar to the Jesus & Mary Chain.
Even at the time of release, most publications noted The Vaccines’ clear homage to their inspirations not as a detractor but as an asset to the record; allegedly, the group were bringing back the energy of rock in its prime. It’s hard to disagree: album opener, ‘Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)’ is an enthralling one minute anthem laden with sunshine pop melodies and nonsensical lyrics. The Vaccines exude as much youthful vigour as Wavves or Best Coast of the same era: an exciting start to a promising album.
It’s a compelling sound that feels full and anthemic
The group are most consistently their best at their rowdiest moments: ballads like ‘Family Friend’ tend to bore as the flimsiness of frontman Justin Young’s songwriting comes to light, whereas hooky pub anthems like ‘If You Wanna’ feel as if they were made to be drunkenly chanted in the Roundhouse. Although, as a record, What Did You Expect places a lot of its efforts into recreating the magic of bygone days, it’s certainly more than a nostalgia-exploiting throwaway: there are genuinely magic moments scattered about here that prove we aren’t dealing with surf-punk imposters.
As much as it’s easy to type The Vaccines as one of the generic indie bands of the 2010s, there’s a surprising ambition to this debut, particularly in its production. What Did You Expect diverts from the typical barebones production popularised by The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys, and instead opts for a Phil Spector-esque wall of sound. The guitars ring out and shimmer deep in the mix, almost as soaked in reverb as something Women (the band, not the gender) were putting out at around the same time. It’s a compelling sound that feels full and anthemic, blending seamlessly with the energetic writing and adding some pomp to The Vaccines’ music.
Ten years later, amongst this stagnant landscape, it is still just as invigorating and fun as it was on release
Quality-wise, the album tends to fluctuate between energetic ragers like ‘Norgaard’ and sappier tracks such as ‘Somebody Else’s Child’, with The Vaccines’ strengths and weaknesses becoming very evident. ‘Post Break-Up Sex’ packs the biggest emotional punch: a lamentation of failed relationships and rebounds with the grandiosity of a Strokes ballad. Blunt in both Young’s lyricism and his performance, it’s the most earnest the frontman sounds across the record, succeeding in producing a surprisingly touching song where a lot of the more straight-forward heart-tuggers fail. The bass driven ‘All in White’ is another standout, seeing the group channel Funeral-era Arcade Fire with an engaging build and explosive drum that rewards the wait.
What Did You Expect from The Vaccines? peaks in these moments when the mix is consumed by vast guitars, booming and rambunctious drums and Young belting his lines as if he’s concerned the instrumental is too loud: the intensity of the sound gives precedence for the perhaps a little too candid lyricism that can grate in more instrumentally tender moments.
If anything, what you can expect from The Vaccines a great hook. Their choruses are smart in their simple and memorable melodies that can feel familiar at first listen. ‘If You Wanna’ is perhaps the best karaoke song indie rock got in the early 2010s, and ‘Norgaard’ is so catchy you almost won’t notice the paedophilic implications of a 23-year-old singing about a 17-year-old’s breasts (almost). Notwithstanding the disappointingly frequent occurrences of cringeworthy lyricism, most songs are free of this creepy tint and feel pleasantly unaged by the ten years this record has now seen.
What Did You Expect from The Vaccines? was no landmark record for indie rock, but it was certainly a great addition to its roster. In 2021, British male-led indie rock seems to be at its least interesting or influential since its conception. With this considered, one can commend this debut for straying a little off the beaten path and succeeding. Ten years later, amongst this stagnant landscape, it is still just as invigorating and fun as it was on release.