Release Date: Sep 20, 2019
Record label: Polyvinyl
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Five years after they disbanded, Vivian Girls have been subject to a fair share of "gone too soon" and "ahead of their time" op-ed pieces. It brought many a writer (specifically New York culture writers who "were there") to wax nostalgic about a trio who always rejected a nostalgic approach to their career. Yeah, you can say that their influences traced back to the likes of the Shangri-Las and the "Slumberland sound," but what I remember was a tirelessly determined trio who, with a very DIY punk ethic, took every opportunity possible to build their fanbase (even flying to Puerto Rico twice, which is always out of the question for stadium rock bands and indie darlings alike).
On the former front, Vivian Girls’ early output represented the 11th hour of both the “blog era” and the ascendant Williamsburg music scene. Like their former local peers, which included DIIV and Beach Fossils, they dashed out ephemeral records that seemed to be more concerned with the means of distribution than production. Songs scarcely eclipsed two minutes, conforming to a crunchy sound indebted to Spectorian girl groups and 80s hardcore.
No one saw this coming. Recorded in secret in the fall of 2018, the fourth Vivian Girls album (and first since 2011's excellent Share the Joy and their subsequent breakup in 2014) is an unmitigated triumph. Instead of picking up where the longer song structures and more experimental instrumentation choices on Share the Joy left off, though, they double down on the quickness, urgency, and intensity of 2009's second LP Everything Goes Wrong.
Not all surprises are bad, as we discovered earlier this summer with the news, out of nowhere, that the long-thought-defunct Vivian Girls had been cooking up a fourth record, their first in nearly a decade, on the sly in Los Angeles over the course of the past year or so. When the trio first disbanded in 2014, there was a sense that perhaps their moment had passed, that they had lived and died by the blogosphere's sword at a time when buzz was king and survival past a second full-length was unfashionable. July's Rolling Stone profile on the reunion instead painted a depressingly familiar picture of misogyny-engendered fatigue, as well as a similarly well-worn story of a band stepping out of the DIY scene that nurtured them into a media maelstrom that stripped them of their handle on why it was they wanted to play music in the first place.
The return of the Vivian Girls in 2019 seemingly came out of nowhere. Since they broke up, each member of the group had struck out on her own and forged a path free and clear of the band and their reputation. Their friendship brought them back together to record Memory, and fans of the band and their brand of spooky, hooky noise pop should be glad. The three bandmembers apply the musical growth they experienced in other projects -- Cassie Ramone in the Babies, Katy Goodman in La Sera, and Ali Koehler in Upset -- to this record, and working with producer Rob Barbato, they deliver plenty of songs that add the noise of punk to the sweetness of pop, sounding tough and more focused than ever.
Even in their rebirth, Vivian Girls have death on the brain. "I live in New York City/And all my friends are dead," Cassie Ramone sings flatly on "I'm Far Away," a creeping, paranoid track off of Memory, Vivian Girls' first album in eight years. That sentiment also serves as a general consensus about the state of indie rock in the half-decade since the band's official breakup: Vivian Girls, along with the North Brooklyn DIY scene they came to represent, have died.
The Lowdown: Taking their name from reclusive American artist and writer Henry Darger, Brooklyn's Vivian Girls set the gold standard for noise-pop during their first run before disbanding in 2014. Over the course of three albums, Cassie Ramone (lead vocals, guitar), Katy Goodman (harmonies, bass), and various drummers balanced beauty and chaos, offering a bracing brew of shoegaze elegance, punk aggression, and angst. Now, rejoined by Ali Kohler, who kept the beat for the second Vivian Girls LP, the rebooted trio uncorks the thrilling Memory, building a towering wall of sound that makes the group's previous efforts seem mild by comparison.