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The Vaccines find better living through chemistry 

Strokes of genius

It was one of those transformative moments. Not on the level of Lennon meeting McCartney, maybe, or Mick hooking up with Keith. But still, something shifted a few years ago when British vocalist Justin Young met guitarist Freddie Cowan and went on to form the Vaccines.

Young, who'd been sharing a house with members of Mumford & Sons, had grown tired of doing solo folk gigs under the name Jay Jay Pistolet, and had nearly sworn off music entirely. Cowan, meanwhile, was equally disheartened by his ho-hum career in rock.

"I thought I'd hit a brick wall," recalls Young. "I'd lost all my focus and drive. But once we started playing together, I had something to aim for again, and I felt refreshed, I felt creative again. And I just wrote a whole string of songs as a result.

That material would eventually become the band's snarkily titled What Did You Expect From the Vaccines? The 2011 debut album spiked Young's ornate folk sensibility with Cowan's scratchy punk filigrees, in crafty singalongs like "Nørgaard," "Post Break-Up Sex," and their breakthrough overseas single "If You Wanna."

A year later, the Vaccines released the equally brilliant — and unexpectedly inventive — Come of Age. This time out they worked with Ethan Johns (son of legendary producer Glyn Johns), who helped beef up their skeletal sound.

At this point, the two musicians' styles are so inextricably entwined that they suggest an almost telepathic communication. The album storms out of the gate with raucous indictments of disaffected twenty-somethings ("No Hope," "Teenage Icon") before spiraling off in spooky, almost sinister directions with "Weirdo," "Ghost Town" and the growling "Bad Mood."

"It's a searching record, because it's us going, 'Who are we as a band? What's gonna make people compare new bands to the Vaccines in 20 years?' And I think Freddie is certainly our secret weapon in that respect — I think he's going to go a long way in helping to shape the identity of the Vaccines, just like Peter Buck did in R.E.M."

Young swears he felt no follow-up pressure. He just kept on writing until he had more than 150 songs, most of which he and Cowan felt were better than the ones on their first album. There was just one snag: Constant touring had led to his vocal cords bleeding, then scarring, until he could barely speak, let alone sing. After three operations and some ongoing therapy, he was well enough to track one Charlie Sheen-inspired single, "Tiger Blood," with the Strokes' Albert Hammond Jr. before revving up to full throttle with Johns.

"I've always liked the idea that if you don't wanna make the same record twice, don't make it with the same person," says Young. "And I've always been a really big fan of Ethan's — I was really into Whiskeytown and the Ryan Adams records he made, and then the Laura Marling records he's made recently. The one thing all those records have in common is that there's so much character in them, and you get a lot of closeness to the artist."

Young figures Come of Age goes a long way toward achieving that same goal. "We hid behind a lot of reverb on our first album," he admits. "So this was a record where we really felt like we needed to show people who we were."

scene@csindy.com

  • Strokes of genius

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