April 8, 2011

If you hadn’t noticed, Douglas Martin has been known to enjoy the occasional Vivian Girls song.

It’s hard to resist the temptation of opening this piece with an unfortunate cliché like “Vivian Girls have grown up so fast” without wanting to shove my computer monitor through the window and then jump out of it to give a flying elbow drop afterward. However, the three years since indie-rock’s initial collective infatuation with the then-Brooklyn-based trio have been pretty eventful, even by hyper-accelerated, keeping-up-with-the-Carleses blog standards.

Here’s a retrospective of Vivian Girls‘ entire career, condensed to two paragraphs and about four minutes: They originally pressed 500 copies of their self-titled debut, only to have the entire run sell out in fewer days than it takes a second-year NHL player to grow a playoff beard. The album got picked up by near-iconic garage-rock label In the Red, former label home of Black Lips and Jay Reatard and current label home of half of San Francisco. The band’s balance of harsh noise and simple pop melody becomes widely popular; instant classic, Best New Music, renewed interest in the C-86 tape, blah blah blah. Admirers fell all over themselves to give them the all-girl-punk-band throne vacated by Sleater-Kinney (a little prematurely), while skeptics dismissed them as The Shaggs 2.0 (a little harshly).

After the hype and year-end accolades died down, that’s when things got interesting. Drummer left for Crystal Stilts. They got a new one. Noise-pop trend semi-explodes. They record a sophomore album that sounds like a mix of late-80’s hardcore and early-90’s grunge with one song (“Can’t Get Over You”) that sounded similar to the girl-group bliss of “Where Do You Run To?,” the band’s most popular song (one that the first drummer wrote). Second drummer left for Best Coast. They got a new one. Bands like Dum Dum Girls and Frankie Rose and the Outs (plot twist: Frankie Rose was Vivian Girls’ first drummer) perfected the girl-group garage formula. Vivian Girls splintered off into side projects, and reconvened to create Share the Joy, reportedly “more psychedelic and less shoegaze.” The buoyant, poppy debut. The darker sophomore effort. And now, the experimental third album, perhaps?

When bands like the aforementioned Dum Dum Girls and Frankie Rose and the Outs came along, they brought a sense of glamour that seemed to be missing from all these garage bands pinching Shirelles 45’s. Stylish vintage outfits. For the latter, a strict dress code of all-black everything (no Lupe). And– I promise– excellent songwriting chops. As these bands were cutting through the touring circuit last year, it started to become apparent that many people felt Vivian Girls were the misfit sisters of a microgenre they helped create. In relation to the vintage cool of their emerging peers, Vivian Girls started to look like a clique of punk outcasts to a lot of people. Which is pretty much what they were to begin with.

This point is acknowledged from the jump, when a vigorous intro leads into the sprawling “The Other Girls,” with frontwoman Cassie Ramone revealing her desire to separate herself from the titular entity and sidestep expectations (“I don’t want to live my life like they think I should”), all while untangling a guitar solo that lasts almost exactly three minutes(!), swelling to a climactic, cathartic finish, doing that distortion / harmony blend they’ve made such a good name on. Ramone’s guitar playing here is as unshowy and utilitarian as ever, but better. She navigates her solos better, picks more effective chord progressions, and allows breathing room for her songs, unsatisfied with bashing things out in less than two minutes every time.

The few exceptions to the rule are when the band goes for the brighter, poppier tracks, like on “Dance (If You Wanna)” and “Take It as It Comes”. The latter is far more interesting, as it’s a kitschy– maybe even a little cheeky– subversion of the girl-group sound. Through spoken-word verses and a simplistic-but-catchy chorus, Ramone upends the “do anything for the man you want” ideals of the genre and advises a friend to “think with your head, girl, not with your heart.”

A lot of Share the Joy finds the band awkwardly slipping into uncharted territory and trying to put a new spin on old tricks, with mixed results. Cupcake-making anthem “I Heard You Say” and its Gregorian-chant-like harmonies are intriguing, but ends up being one of the less interesting tracks on the album after multiple listens. “Lake House,” a holdover from a 2009 single, shows the girls’ skill at taking exploratory instrumental detours, but falls flat in the relatively dry “Rear House Sound” (Rear House being the Brooklyn studio that’s quickly becoming the Abbey Road of DIY indie). The aforementioned “Dance (If You Wanna)” suffers the same fate with its alt-teen-pop already popularized to the point of oversaturation by Best Coast. Clearly, that situation could have been dutifully remedied with more lyrics about talking cats (I jest).

In addition to Ramone becoming a better guitarist, she’s also become a better songwriter, playing with structure a little more and not afraid to toy with the standard verse-chorus-verse template. After singing lead in La Sera, Kickball Katy has become a stronger and more versatile background singer. And when Ali Koehler left for Best Coast, she was replaced with Fiona Campbell (formerly of Coasting), a drummer not only more powerful, but one that sings, providing Vivian Girls with the three-part harmonies that had been missing since Frankie Rose’s departure. While everybody had their backs turned watching the other girl-group garage acts, Vivian Girls secretly improved in many areas.

Most of those improvements manifest themselves in the album’s darker songs, following the lead of Everything Goes Wrong. “Trying to Pretend” opens with a solemn acoustic jaunt and quickly transforms into a rumbling freakout with militaristic drumming and descending chords. Album highlight “Vanishing of Time” is a synthesis of all the band’s newfound strengths and some of their old ones, with major-chord girl-group swing being infiltrated with a minor-chord switch right before the verses (the kind of switch that makes the hairs on your arms stand up), a ringing, clanging guitar solo, and an beautifully harmonic finish.

The feeling that the stakes are raised a little for Vivian Girls is one that never leaves Share the Joy, which comes to a head on closer “Light in Your Eyes”. Clocking in at over six minutes (just like the album’s equally ambitious opener), the tune contains a driving thrust that proves the influence of Wipers wasn’t just cool hipster-punk posturing on Ramone’s part. The track winds and unravels, features an organ-like instrument called the celeste, and sputters out like a runaway train car finally flipping off the tracks. Ramone’s voice has always been somewhat of an acquired taste, even a point of contention, and here she uses it as a weapon of confrontation, intentionally shifting it off-key as an act of defiance against the standards of the “pretty feminine voice”. And with that, Vivian Girls decide to separate themselves from their peers, with a record full of ambitious achievements and occasional stumbles, a dynamic thirty-five minutes not perfect by any means, but a success in marking bold new territory for the band.

Download:
MP3: Vivian Girls-“I Heard You Say”

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