Review: The Vanities – Coma Kiss

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Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy March 7, 2006

Coma Kiss, the fourth studio offering from one of New Jersey’s finest unsigned bands, didn’t arrive last month as much as it gradually became a part of listeners’ lives. The Vanities have spent the better part of a year writing, recording, and refining the 10-song disc, and early demos have surfaced at many of the quartet’s electrifying live shows, where the songs themselves hardly were shy about erupting on stage. To some, this could feel like a built-in handicap: by the time The Vanities were set to peddle and promote the record, few of their fans or local scenesters had reason to buy it. But the group has clearly turned this to its advantage. By the time you actually grab a copy of the completed Coma Kiss, the handwritten track listings and CD-Rs replaced with morose, black-and-white cover art and a UPC code, the record feels comfortable, familiar, and broken-in, at once a greatest-hits offering and the band’s most assured release to date. It more than lives up to the hype.

The record makes much of the ground covered on the group’s first three records feel like a prelude. Listen closely and you’ll hear the bizarre, Mr. Bungle-influenced sonic pastiche of The Vanities’ self-titled “white” and “black” albums or the guitar-lashed refrains of 2004’s EP for The Lord. But the songs on Coma Kiss feel more developed and fleshed-out, a balance of The Vanities’ early sonic experimentations and its increasing adeptness at crafting radio-ready post-punk/alt-rock gems. Nowhere is this more clear than on tracks like the blistering “Uncle Meat” or the re-recorded EP for The Lord staple “No Vacancy,” where the group sinks hooks into you with borderline-anthemic refrains and tightly wound choruses but also weaves stop-on-a-dime signatures, acidic lyrics, and Joe Reilly’s calculated, sometimes-unconventional guitar patterns into the proceedings.

There are countless songs on the disc that are among the group’s best, and simply listing or describing seems to do little justice. “Tilt,” with its exercises in jagged stop-start dynamics, features drum rolls and fluid guitar figures worthy of Dick Dale or The Ventures, even if its catchy, distorted choruses call to mind Nevermind-era Nirvana. “Mississippi Mud” lives up to its title, as grungy verses and the barked vocals of its bridges give way to muted blues scales, sludgy asides, or the occasional introduction of a bottleneck slide. “Keeps Me Coming Back” and “Through the Fold” toy with quiet-loud patterns, that golden child of alt-rock, shifting the listener between vocalist/guitarist Rob Blake’s deceptively pensive calls of “You have a lovely cell / Let me help you lose yourself” and the rhythmic punch of drummer Cory King and bassist Almando Cordero.

Elsewhere, the influences and direction are more obvious. “Coma Kiss” and “Mementos on a Noose,” both of which sport instrumental passages filled with wailing guitars and textured bass-and-guitar bridges, show a clear affinity for At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta. The house-of-horrors bassline and almost-theatrical vocal delivery of “Overwith,” combined with the rock-metal soloing of “Sore,” calls to mind the Jim Martin days of Faith No More. “Uncle Meat” — with its guitar/bass breakdowns and Blake’s throat-tearing roar of “All that’s left are these memories / and you can take them too / The scent of dead meat lingers / as the bones press through” — would be impossible to imagine without the foundations laid by Black Francis or Kurt Cobain.

It’s actually Cobain’s legacy that lingers throughout much of the disc, offering more accessible points of entry to listeners less smitten with time signatures or interlocked guitar and bass lines than a catchy, albeit emotionally charged, verse. Like Nirvana, The Vanities are beginning to marry their more obscure or artful influences with a knack for writing crisp, memorable, and surprisingly accessible songs. And like Cobain, Blake knows the value of a well-timed scream, a trait that saves much of Coma Kiss from falling prey to its almost-pristine recording quality or the angularity of its chops.

If you’ve set foot anywhere near the Garden State’s coast recently, chances are you’ve heard the works-in-progress percolating under the guise of The Vanities’ newest full-length outing. Now that the much-anticipated record is officially here, know that you haven’t heard Coma Kiss until you’ve heard it in its entirety. The fun is just beginning.

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