As recounted in songs by Comet Gain and Walker Kong, the "Vivian Girls" are the seven sisters who feature in Henry Darger's posthumously published fantasy epic, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Tribute has also been paid by everyone from poet John Ashberry to Sufjan Stevens, ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Camper Van Beethoven, Fucked Up, the Residents' Snakefinger, and ex-Maniac Natalie Merchant-and now by Brooklyn noise-pop band the Vivian Girls.
Review by Tim Sendra
At 21 minutes long Vivian Girls' debut album is over almost before it begins; it flashes by in a cloud of sludgy distortion and hissy noise. The trio belongs to a proud heritage of noise pop that started (as do so many things) with the Velvet Underground, went through to the Shop Assistants and early My Bloody Valentine in the mid-'80s, and continued on to Black Tambourine and Tiger Trap in the late '90s. Along with current bands like Times New Viking, Vivian Girls take their cues from their predecessors and cover their melodies in fuzzy gunk. It's a winning formula, as the bands mentioned previously have proven. Vivian Girls don't add much to the formula here as they race through the ten songs at a breathless pace, submerging the guitars in a sludgy murk and barely pausing for hooks. The vocals sound rushed and off-key, the harmonies are flat at times, and the drums often fall behind the beat as the rest of the band races for the finish line. If you demand precision and timing from your pop music, you'll be aghast at the trio's lack of professionalism. But what Vivian Girls sacrifice in chops, they gain back double in energy and immediacy. The sound of three people ripping through hooky tunes without regard for pleasantries and taste is one of the joys of rock & roll, and Vivian Girls do satisfy on that account. The album could have used more variation; the only ballad on the album ("Where Do You Run") is one of the highlights, and proof that the band doesn't need to bash everything out all the time. The bashing sounds pretty good, though, and a couple of the songs like "Tell the World" and "Wild Eyes" match up well with the best work of their influences. This is a fine introduction to the group, and if Vivian Girls stay out of fancy studios and keep cranking out good songs, they might come up with something as classic as Will Anything Happen or Tiger Trap.
[Mauled by Tigers/In the Red; 2008]
In a year when Brooklyn buzz travels around the world at lightspeed, you can probably count on one hand the number of new bands that, when the hype settles, are more than inconsequential collections of postures and exhausted second-hand styles. Vivian Girls, an all-female trio who've become overnight sensations among critics and underground rock fans, are seemingly candidates for one of those emperor's new clothes-type reveals-- after all, they hail from said borough and perform lo-fi garage rock that taps a number of fashionable historical, ideological, and aesthetic wellsprings (C86! Slumberland! Olympia! Nuggets! Spector!). They deflect the knee-jerk criticism the most effective way possible, though: with an armful of kick-ass songs.
Vivian Girls' 22-minute debut for the California-based garage-rock imprint In the Red is actually a reissue of this spring's 500-copy run on the tiny Mauled by Tigers label. The original release sold out in 10 days, amping both the band's mystique and the record's exchange value: A vinyl copy ended bidding at $68 on eBay a couple weeks ago. So far, Vivian Girls seem to be taking their subcultural celebrity-- not to mention the summer departure of drummer and band founder Frankie Rose for brother band Crystal Stilts-- in stride. In the intentionally dorky video for "Tell the World", Cassie Ramone, Kickball Katy, and Ali Koehler address the camera, poised and unsmiling, even as they pantomime the usual humiliating music vid motions.
The band's lyrics are just as purposefully passive. In his intro to Rhino's superlative box set, One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found, critic Gene Sculatti locates the enduring popularity of 60s girl group music in its effect: "This music was, like a moving symphony or free-floating jazz jam, mainly about a feel, a sound. It had words, yes, but they were never intended to get in the way of the overall impact of the record." Punk credentials aside, Vivian Girls are clearly simpatico to that gentler era's agenda. According to the band, the album is somewhat conceptual, its 10 tracks evenly split between love and heartbreak. "No", an angry thrash-and-bash propelled by a single lyric (guess!) is easy to place. But the LP is rarely so transparent, and Vivian Girls mainly get their message across with a murky wall of noise. Try to pry the lyrics of cacophonous openers "All the Time" and “Such a Joke" from their shoegazery feedback, thudding bass, and tambourine rattle and you'll be missing the point.
Without risking pastiche, the band gets plenty of mileage from its sonic references. "Tell the World"s frantic beat recalls the jittery, chaotic rhythm of Black Tambourine's "Throw Aggi Off the Bridge", while the Girls' flawless, calmly executed three-part harmony counters with the satin-shoed professionalism of the Crystals. The lyrics-- this is one of Vivian Girls' few completely legible songs-- are as ambivalent: "I'll tell the world about the love that I've found," they enthuse, giving public voice to teenage infatuation (an evergreen girl-group subject), while at the same time raising the Spector of out-of-whack control issues: "He sees what I see/ He feels what I feel." (Not convinced? Switch out the gender of the pronoun and singers.) The end result is phenomenal, one of 2008's best songs. The sweet jangled "Where Do You Run To" is almost as great, making pining at home seem not so bad, all things considered.
The trio nabbed its name from the heroines of outsider artist Henry Darger's magnum opus, In the Realms of the Unreal. A sorority of vaguely fetishized hermaphrodite messiahs, Darger's Vivian girls are some of the most slippery, troublesome figures in contemporary art, making the band's appropriation a clever bit of self-mythologizing. The final track on their album, "I Believe in Nothing", purportedly endorses nihilism. But it puts the lie to its own message with heavenly madrigals and a hooky refrain that'll burrow into your brain and replay like a mantra until you do, in fact, believe in something. Even if it's just this really awesome new band.
- Amy Granzin, October 3, 2008