Vivian Girls

Everything Goes Wrong

(In the Red; 2009)

By Christopher Alexander | 25 September 2009

Vivian Girls was a long player in name only. Coming in just south of eighteen minutes, its ten songs were sugary and explosive, like ’50s AM gold radio over miles of awful static. “Tell the World,” the moody, droning song at its center, was the sole exception; even then, it served as a counterpoint to make the sunnier moments even brighter. Somehow those high notes in “Where Do You Run To?” became more dazzling, that final chord in the chorus letting the voices drift up like smoke. “Wild Eyes” was unsettling, but it sounded coquettish in the light of “Tell the World,” and the heroically artless guitar solo made the piece a joke performer and audience alike were a part of. Even “No,” an explicit nod to the guiding punk concept of negation, treated the sole word of its lyric to a confectioner’s melody that would’ve done Ellie Greenwich (RIP) proud. Chet’s word, for me, is the final one: “Punk music has never been so delicately burdened with melody and harmony, then shoved into a closet so no one can hear it complain.”

Everything Goes Wrong, however, is music from that closet. It starts when lead Vivian Cassie Ramone finds the most slippery, elusive chord her fingers can make, full of open strings, devoid of resolution. The words are impossible to decipher in “Walking Alone at Night,” so muffled is this closet music: one can hear her shout about wasting time, but whether this is a kiss off, fervent wish, or mere sober realization is anyone’s guess. What the listener can gather—a chord sequence that refuses to solve itself; a rhythm section that sounds, suddenly, menacing; a vocal much more plaintive than anything found on prior records; and the endless echo of a horribly mangled guitar sound—accumulates into something more intense than its ingredients would suggest. It simultaneously sounds able to go in any direction and yet unable to actually go in those directions. So it must be a fervent wish: this song is a ball that is placed on top of a precipice that never moves anywhere, obeying the iron law of physics that an object never has more potential than when it is at rest, before it makes its first motion.

Song titles provide clues: the first track’s solitary constitutional, “I Can’t Get Over You,” “When I’m Gone,” “Tension,” “The End,” “I Have No Fun.” They scream “break-up album” before we even press play, and what snatches of conversation we can hear behind this door only confirms the suspicion: “I won’t see you when you’re talking to her”; “When everything goes wrong / Will you miss me when I’m gone?”; “Why am I waiting around for this dream?” Minor chords abound: as on Vivian Girls, the songs seldom start on the I chord—if a song is in the key of G, it’s likely to start five notes away on C, before slowly building up to its home chord. But rather than those major lifts that seemed to palpably lift “Wild Eyes” or “Where do You Run To?” off the ground, songs like “I Have No Fun” find their center when they fall into the parallel minor (in layman’s terms: they’re sadder). Even the otherwise buoyant “Can’t Get Over You” feels moored by a sense of sadness, dragged down by a failure to unclasp itself from a memory.

If it isn’t a break-up album, perhaps it’s an apocalypse album. “Out for the Sun” sits anxiously between two keys, its verses broken up by an extended instrumental improvisation that features Ramone’s best, and unhinged, guitar playing to date, all bended notes and ugly chords. The band plays like it’s setting itself on fire, like it’s shooting through space and actually burning in that ball of gas. “Survival” is an exercise in making the wrong turns work, one grinding, startling change follows another until the resultant anxiety is unbearable and unrelieved (and, in so doing, comes remarkably close to the deep end of the first two Pixies albums). Ramone sings a downward sliding note on the sublime “Tension,” like the Ronettes in a dream upon awakening, except with a more ashen tone: the Ronettes in a wasteland.

All of this is to say that Everything Goes Wrong, despite hewing close to the sound established on their debut (early sixties girl band meets early 21st century Williamsburg, and everyone gets so excited they forget to tune their guitars), is a great deal murkier, maybe even nastier. “The End” begins with a crash, and if its lyrics read like a consoling valentine (“I will be the one to make the stars shine bright”) the song is delivered with such violence—Ali Koehler hits the toms to the point where the skins almost break; Kickball Katy finds high notes on her bass and then goes higher, like she’s daring the rest of the band and, by extension, herself; and all of it fights for air under an ungodly gnarly guitar sound—that the listener almost smirks: “yeah, right.” The song that immediately follows, “When I’m Gone,” is its second mind. Koehler taps out a drum beat that reminds one not so much of Phil Spector but of someone knocking on a would-be lover’s door, late at night. There’s only one thing on Ramone’s mind, but she sounds sorry to have bothered, it’s so silly, trivial, to ask somebody to stand there with you. She only finds one note to sing, but it feels like twenty.

Venom, defeat, desires so naked they can only be expressed in the corniest Brill-Building tropes imaginable, and then only given voice under blankets of reverb and distortion—small wonder that early Weezer is a major touchstone for the three. The Vivian Girls speak fluent Hipster, and it’s easy to see why they garner such umbrage (a heckler at a recent show remarked that anyone hailing from Bergen County, NJ can afford guitar lessons). But if it’s true that being a hipster means never having to say what you mean, then the band is speaking the language backwards: they start at ironic gestures and end up arriving at substance. Clichés become that way when they’ve been said a million times, and feelings are cliches because a million people have all felt the same thing, but they’ve still felt them. Or else we’ve all been mistaking irony for mere self-awareness. The band comes to their sound at least twenty years too late, but they’re true believers in the power their influences still have, past their value as kitsch.

This is Everything Goes Wrong. So is the small guitar line that percolates like boiling water in the quiet recesses of “Can’t Get Over You.” So is the tense, wobbly guitar that introduces “The Desert.” So is the cyclical, nigh unbearable sound of the two chords that close “When I’m Gone,” as if the preceding song were merely a list of questions the singer already knew the answer to. It’s a slower, more patient album whose interstitial scenes provide a secret history, where loose ends can be followed to a host of things unsaid in the songs. Frankly, I didn’t think they had it in them: down one founding member, up a few so-so 45“s, and at the center of an especially obnoxious media buzz, Vivian Girls have responded in a way I never saw coming. Everything Goes Wrong is, proudly and brilliantly, a long player.