Brooklyn-based trio Vivian Girls have lived a lifetime in blog years, going from virtual unknowns to hipster music blog celebrities to backlash victims in about 14 months. But regardless of any blowback caused by the ever-shortening PR cycles in the blogosphere, this punkish, fuzzed-out update on the classic girl-group sounds of the ‘60s was a welcome discovery in 2008.
And what a year it was. The Vivian Girls – Cassie Ramone (the blonde; guitar/vocals), Kickball Katy (the redhead; bass/vocals) and Ali Koehler (the bespectacled brunette; drums/vocals) – released four 7” singles and a full-length LP, played continually throughout NYC, toured their asses off, opened for such alterna-stalwarts as Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo, and did a lot of press. In short, they’re doing everything a new band should be doing.
Their music references a whole bunch of stylistic argot: The harmonies and overall mood (and reverb!) will recall such ‘60s girl-groups as The Crystals, The Ronettes, The Shangri-Las and so forth. The fuzztone guitar in a lot of their songs and the general loose feel of the arrangements feel like garage rock. That some songs devolve into squealing cacophony is bit shoegaze-y. Surf music gets a nod in both their vocal harmonizing and some of their song choices (a recently released cover of the Beach Boys “Girl Don’t Tell Me,” for instance). Their look and attitude recalls the best of the riotgrrl movement. Toss a little shambolic C86 in there, too. Hell, go all the way back to The Raincoats, if you want. And the whole affair is presented in glorious lo-fi, Slumberland-y, knocked-off brilliance (hey, if it were as easy as it sounds, don’t you think there’d be more of it?).
Take, for instance, “Surfin’ Away,” the lead track of their most recent 7”, Surf’s Up. In fact, let’s take three versions of the song, in chronological recording order:
Surfin’ Away – Live at Vibes II MOKB Studio [recorded August 10, 2008]
Surfin’ Away – Live at WFMU [September 1, ‘08]
Surfin’ Away – 7” Single version [recorded sometime in September ’08 (“in Ali’s basement”)]
It’s interesting to hear a song’s, er, growth, over three different sessions in the span of about a month or less. In the “Live at Vibes” version, the Girls pitchy harmonizing doesn’t really gel until the third verse, toward the end of the song. The second version, “Live at WFMU,” finds Cassie, Katy and Ali really hitting their stride, most likely because they were actually able to hear themselves (which is pretty important when attempting to pull off this type of complex vocal harmonies in a live setting). The third version, the official single release, while technically the best, doesn’t boast nearly enough sonic presence as the ‘FMU take…such is the nature of basement recordings and the lo-fi attitude of just getting your art out there without too much hand-wringing.
Most ears may blanch at what, on first listen, sounds out-of-tune, amateurish and post-modernly tongue-in-cheek. But beneath the distortion, fuzz, sketchy harmonies and sea of reverb lies a true pop heart. It sounds like what I’d imagine the early rehearsals of, say, The Shangri-Las (if, that is, the Shangri-Las or any of those classic girl-groups played their own instruments and wrote their own songs rather than being the female vocalists backed by session and studio cats and Brill Building-type songwriters). Not convinced yet? Try these two standout tracks from their self-titled debut for a much better sense of what I’m talking about:
The Vivian Girls are currently finishing up a short-ish tour of Europe, but resume stateside touring throughout the springtime run up to festival season (including Coachella, among others).