The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Vivian Girls: A Critical Overview

Features
09/19/2019
Martin Douglas
Photo by Neil Kryszak

On Sept. 20, 2019, Vivian Girls will return after a five-year hiatus with their fourth album, Memory, on Polyvinyl Records. On the eve of the album's release, KEXP's Martin Douglas revisits the band's catalog for a critical analysis. 


It comes as absolutely no surprise that Vivian Girls sold completely out of the first pressing of their remarkable debut LP. By the time I first heard it, in an astoundingly accurate measure of taste by an acquaintance of mine, I knew it would change my life, I knew it was so many of my favorite things about rock music fused together and burnished in guitars sounding like buzzsaws cutting through sheet metal.

Even over a decade later, as musicians influenced by the punk trio capture the hearts and minds of fans of their own, the tempest whirring in Vivian Girls' first set of songs still sound fresh. Every bit as fresh as they did when they stormed Blogspot servers in the summer of 2008. The blend of punk fury, pop melody, and grinding noise is indelible throughout Vivian Girls' short running time. Opener "All the Time" is a sweet song about the (sometimes-)happy moments of a crush between habitual criminals augmented by the smash-and-grab mayhem of its accompanying music. "He steals my thunder while I pick the flowers in his head" is a lyric revealing singer/guitarist Cassie Ramone as an abstractly powerful lyricist.

Ramone has said in a few interviews that she hadn't heard C86 – the famed NME compilation tape which spawned virtually an entire generation of extremely noisy pop bands – until she started getting feedback about Vivian Girls. "Going Insane" is the apotheosis of bloggers and music critics playing Spot the Reference; serrated, ear-splitting twee-punk vaguely reminiscent of legends Talulah Gosh falling down an incinerator chute. Though Ramone had never heard of it, founding drummer Frankie Rose thoroughly enjoyed the tape, along with noise-pop barons Black Tambourine. As fate would have it, she would end up leaving Vivian Girls not too long after their first full-length blew up, starting her own group and signing to Slumberland Records, the label for which Black Tambourine was a flagship band.

"Such a Joke" feels like a climax scene in a teen movie, where the girl gang is walking down the halls and slamming other people's lockers shut on their way to a fight. "Tell the World" would sit nicely, clad in black, on a goth playlist and no one would be the wiser. "No" is a near-thrasher with the easiest lyric sheet to memorize since the Urinals' "Surfin' with the Shah."

Side 2 opens with what might be Vivian Girls' most recognized song. Existing directly in the eye of the storm, "Where Do You Run To" is a gleaming jewel of the compatible feelings of devotion and loneliness, clear-eyed and open-hearted. The Frankie Rose-penned stunner is directly influenced by 60's girl-group pop, with its sweetly sung verses and goosebump-raising harmonies. "Damaged" is a rumination on a toxic fling, torn apart by the clanging and clattering of its instruments.

The darker side of the band in its beginning stages ride in under black clouds on the self-titled album's final two songs. "Never See Me Again" and "I Believe in Nothing" are blistering (or blistered) breakup songs with their theses carved into the wood of their guitars. Heartbroken, pessimistic, depressed, trying to push the ex-lover out of the picture while tinged with complication; it's never easy to break something off for good if the feelings are strong enough. (This is a theme that crops up often in the band's songwriting.) Vivian Girls feels low-stakes on the surface until you realize how accurately the band conveys the full spectrum of romantic relationships in barely 20 minutes.

***

An analog warmth carries itself throughout the band's sophomore record Everything Goes Wrong. The album being recorded on tape most certainly takes away the metallic sheen of the clanging guitars on the band's self-titled debut. I've always felt Vivian Girls' sophomore set of songs was sprawling, but that's probably because their debut was swift and brief -- two qualities which helped its status as a truly special punk record. With the space to stretch their legs out more, the band created another spectacular record with a completely different feel from its predecessor.

If Vivian Girls was the warehouse punk show, Everything Goes Wrong was the 90mph drive through the desert.

There's an alternate universe where grungy closer "Before I Start to Cry" is a minor hit on alternative rock radio, with Ramone's heartsick breakup ballad springing up on sadboy mixtapes all over Earth 2. The song at the time was a curio in the band's discography, not necessarily for its subject matter (as mentioned, Vivian Girls is dotted all over by songs about the act of leaving or the need to leave a relationship), but rather in its delivery. "Can't Get Over You," in all its punkish sock hop glory, explores that familiar theme of "shouldn't but does anyway," of that jolt in your chest when approached by a lover who hurt you. Through the infidelity, the hurt pride, the goodbyes, the hand held out for a dance is too strong not to pull you in.

"The Desert" represents pulsating infatuation in the form of a freewheeling, fast-paced love song about someone you know is the one but have rightful apprehension to acknowledge as such. "Tension" is musically rendered to articulate the song's lyrics perfectly, with Ramone and singer/bassist "Kickball" Katy Goodman singing above the din threatening to swallow them whole.

The three drummers who have held sticks for Vivian Girls all have their own distinct styles. It's clear none of them were trying to adapt to some conceived "Vivian Girls style;" rather, the songs are emboldened and deepened by each drummer's individual style. Ali Koehler, drummer during the period of Everything Goes Wrong and now, has always been the most precise and metronomic, and the tempo which she can sprint through with ease is purely athletic.

Everything Goes Wrong, as evidenced by its title, is carried by its sense of discord thematically. The aforementioned "Tension" builds and builds without a release, "Survival" contains a tangible sense of urgency akin to being chased down by a tornado, "You're My Guy" is a pretty direct response to the tidal wave of misogynistic derision levied at the band in the Wild West days of blog comment threads filled with anonymous cowardice.

The story of Vivian Girls cannot be told without acknowledging the band as a signpost for the worst impulses of male indie rock fans on the internet before Twitter became the hallmark platform for such behavior, before trolling was used in the context we can't divorce it from today. For reasons outside of my realm of understanding, Vivian Girls were weirdly – and profoundly – polarizing, and instead of engaging in critical discourse like adults, putrid human beings would jump on the internet, discuss the appearance of the all-woman band's members, and even threaten sexual violence against them.

"When I'm Gone" serves as the album's centerpiece, simultaneously melancholic and thrilling, driven by the rhythm section of Goodman and Koehler, haunting and cathartic and ultimately liberating in the lyrical context of a relationship gone sour. "When everything goes wrong," Ramone and Goodman harmonize, "Will you sit around and miss me when I'm gone?"

***

From subversive girl-group pop songs to the ripper where they've come closest to evoking the style of one of the band's original influences in Wipers, Vivian Girls are downright adventurous on their epic third album Share the Joy. This album is the band at their most psychedelic; whirring guitar lines, sidewinding solos, lyrics steeped in death and the quiet of 3 a.m. by the lake and wanting to claim their lives for themselves.

Opener "The Other Girls" swirls and cascades in a way befitting this new version of Vivian Girls. Ramone's songwriting is as artfully structured as ever. The band adopts an eerie feel on "Death," where Ramone sings lyrics of finding a discarded eyeball on the ground. It's a song of perseverance, a pledge of intent to stay alive until the best parts of life start happening. The reaper hangs little presents all over the album's themes, which drives their perfectly selected cover of "Sixteen Ways." Originally written by Paisley Underground orbiters Green on Red, the song is marked by manslaughter, murder, sleepless nights from a parent who lost each of their sixteen children., and forty years of hard work, augmented in this version by a crying guitar solo and Fiona Campbell's propulsive, eight-cylinder drumming.

Closer "Light in Your Eyes" feels like it was borne out of pulling a ripcord, a propulsive odyssey clearly inspired by "Youth of America," augmented by organ, celeste, and growling, dirty guitar solos. Ramone sings of a love she wants back, the light in someone's eyes showing the way through a dark forest.

Even the lightness of pop jaunt "Dance if You Wanna" is tinged by sadness, its lyrics shuddering at the idea of having to say goodbye, all lilting voices and singing guitars. "I Heard You Say" and "Trying to Pretend" survey the broken things left in the wake of shattered relationships; the latter stringing daisy chains around their instruments, the former bookended by solemn campfire folk, heavy and dramatic in the middle. The joy to be shared in Vivian Girls' immense third full-length is few and far between, which is a powerful message in and of itself. Sometimes the only triumph found in parts of our lives is survival. What "Vanishing of Time" is about lies right in its title; the days, weeks, months, and years here and gone in the blink of an eye. The only direction to move is onward.

***

After breaking up in 2014, Vivian Girls have returned with a new album – MemoryMemory is a darker-sounding record than the ones which preceded it; the album feels brisk and wide open like Everything Goes Wrong (as opposed to the potent brevity of Vivian Girls) and lyrically ambitious like Share the Joy. It's perspective that helps us grow as writers; it's the lives we've lived in between what we put in our work.

Ramone moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles in 2018, which is a huge life change. After years of tackling other projects (solo projects in both music and visual art, two albums with Kevin Morby as the Babies), Ramone was working on a solo album but felt the project wasn't clicking – indicative of the things you learn when you try to create something and it isn't working. After a phone conversation with Goodman, Ramone stepped back into a familiar dynamic. She, Goodman, and Koehler practiced in secret, then recorded Memory in secret, and finally announced over the summer they were back in business as a band, which was met to a heroes' reception by their fans and supporters.

Much like the tense nighttime drive feel of Everything Goes Wrong, Memory carries the thrill of releasing a lot of emotional weight the same way. "Your Kind of Life," tells the story of lovers turned strangers living on separate coasts, the happy place you can never go back to, the moments before the newest stage of your life begins. "You gotta move on, you gotta move on, you gotta move on and live your kind of life."

Memory, that invisible connective tissue spinning webs between any person and the people they know or used to know, is the landscape on which Vivian Girls' fourth record is traveled. Searching through the rubble of ruined relationships, a spot on the wall where a final brain cell is banged out, people wasted and screaming in bed, romantic beach walks in the very past tense, a vast expanse littered with 7-Eleven parking lots. "Sick again / More often than not at the hands of men."

The most obvious thing I can write about Vivian Girls their interest in noise as an instrument married to a pop melody. On Memory, the distortion and dissonance are healthily employed, mostly as vapor clouds blowing in and out of the songs. A hazy drone makes way for a full-volume guitar solo distorted into metal spikes on "Lonely Girl," the climax of a song-length build which floats before it hits the ground and takes off running. "Sludge," however, is heavy on squall and existentialism, feedback squealing as the sharp aroma of alcohol trails from breath and the flowing lanes of freeways and a god who eventually strikes us all down in the end.

"At it Again," in its jangly, major-key splendor, is the internal dialogue many of us have with ourselves: We're fuck-ups, we're damaged, it's perfectly reasonable we think nobody cares about us. The idea of this depressive trait coming with such an indelible melody is masterful. "Something to Do" is about how boring and unfulfilling the world is without the person you love, even when you can tell they're lying when they say they care about you. "All Your Promises" has the air of a choice penultimate track, a forward drive ripped apart by the roar of distortion, building to a climax threatening to leave the song crumbled into dust, while having all the glittery pledges found in the honeymoon stage of a relationship faded and browning from being left in the sun for too long.

Album closer "Waiting in the Car" feels like the sobering sunrise after a long night, trying to exist in something meaningful with someone who's not in love with you anymore. But there they are, still sitting in the passenger seat and ready to go. It's appropriate to end an album which represents Vivian Girls headed into the deep unknown together when trying to manage that task apart ended up not being the most fulfilling path.

They've left these four documents of their artistic lives for all of us to share and revel in and relate to. But the future always calls for us, doesn't it?

Click anywhere to return to the site