When most exes reconvene, they try to skirt the big naked elephant in the room. This was not the case for Scottish lo-fi pop duo the Vaselines. Recently musically reunited after 20 years apart, Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee revisited all those jumbled relationship emotions with surprising candor, even christening their new album Sex with an Ex — a tongue-in-cheek reference to their history. In the albums' title track, the former lovers even harmonize while singing "Feels so wrong, it must be good for me."
So why name the album Sex with an Ex? "Because that's what's happening, but I haven't told my husband yet," McKee says with a laugh. "No! We were just playing with fire."
McKee might be back in the recording studio and on the road with her ex-boyfriend and former musical partner, but a lot has changed for the Vaselines — as evidenced by the sound of her 5-year-old wailing in the background, stuck watching Star Wars while mom talks to reporters over the phone.
Having kids doesn't mean she has lost her delightfully acerbic sense of humor in conversation or lyrics. She's also charmingly nonchalant about the band's brief moment of notoriety in the early '90s, when another band, Nirvana, showed the rest of the world just how good the Vaselines' songs were.
Kurt Cobain was undeniably infatuated with the duo's music, covering "Son of a Gun" and "Molly's Lips" on Incesticide, and a version of a song the Vaselines themselves covered — "Jesus Don't Want Me for a Sunbeam" — on the live album MTV Unplugged in New York. McKee admits her eldest son prefers the Nirvana version of "Molly's Lips," but still thinks it's cool they covered his mom's music. "It's amazing," she says. "I'm amazed that people have even heard of us."
By the time Nirvana played their songs for a new generation, the Scots' band and relationship were already kaput. The Vaselines briefly reformed in the early '90s to open for Nirvana, but went their separate ways shortly thereafter, and met up only occasionally in recent years for sporadic reunion shows.
The band began in 1986, when McKee started seeing Kelly around her Glasgow neighborhood. One night at a party, she got the courage to talk to him. The two started a band and fell in love.
The band quickly wrote an album of quirky garage-pop songs, 1990's scrappy Dum-Dum. It was their only proper full-length LP until this year (though Sub Pop released the retrospective Enter the Vaselines last year). Their recording process — employing no digital tools and playing straight through with just a few takes — was the same arrangement they used on the new album.
Sex with an Ex was recorded in just 13 days with the help of a few members of Belle and Sebastian and producer Jamie Watson, who'd also worked on their first album. "We wanted everything to be warm and fresh sounding," McKee says. "We didn't want to be a band that sat around for months scratching our heads."
The result is a garage-pop dream. Sex with an Ex packs 12 fun, irony-laced tracks. McKee and Kelly's cutting wit comes out in songs like "Overweight but Over You," which follows a broken-hearted lover's food overdose. The track showcases the band at its finest, with kitschy lyrics, harmonized vocals, and vibrating, fuzzed-out guitar. "Poison Pen" has McKee and Kelly performing an impromptu call-and-response that devolves into an argument about their past. "It always comes back to our relationship at some point in the song," McKee explains.
Lucky for us, the still-looming emotions from that doomed romantic relationship resulted in a solid comeback record. After 20 years, the Vaselines finally got it right.