(Mauled by Tigers/In the Red; 2008)
By Chet Betz | 21 October 2008
I think we can finally say goodbye to Sleater-Kinney. Female three-piece Vivian Girls have delivered the most assured rock debut of 2008. I could throw a list of some bands in their direction (the Breeders, the Pale Saints, Television Personalities) and they would trap the comparisons through the gravitational pull of their aesthetic and then consume their own confessed influences (the Shangri-Las, the Wipers) whole in the cool-hot red dwarf that is their music’s end result: a sound that’s as dense as it is simple, where a story blunt in word is burnished by the friction from sonic contradiction until it’s incandescent—but its light is only seen through a dirty window, its vibrant peals of noise only heard from the other end of the hall, through the cracks in the walls. Vivian Girls is immediate yet distant and all the more enthralling for that conjunction.
DIY mystique has never sounded so bright. Punk music has never been so delicately burdened with melody and harmony, then shoved into a closet so no one can hear it complain. I never thought I’d crush on a group with a bassist called Kickball Katy. And on first listen you’d probably never think there’s anything here beyond another aloof stylistic triumph for the Brooklyn scene, another cross-genre (‘60s girl group meets punk meets shoegaze meets Pitchfork nation) accomplishment in a cool jacket, another thing to dig on automatic. Another piece of hip life to recommend to your friends with a slight shrug, the hitch resulting from you knowing that this hybrid’s too deeply in love with the ingenuity of its own mere existence for any outside party to compete. And from knowing that in a few years you’ll probably feel the same way about it that you now feel about Interpol. This is our usual cautionary tale we tell ourselves. This is our new band pre-nup. Our heads are firmly battened down, our hearts tucked neatly away. There will be no flapping about with the gusts of hyperbole.
But check it: the narrator of Vivian Girls smiles “All the Time” and has a carefree laugh because love is “Such a Joke” before getting seduced by “Wild Eyes,” which has her “Going Insane” because she wants “to win his heart,” and then feeling that she’s succeeded she wants to “Tell the World.” It’s not long, though, before suspicions arise and she asks him, “Where Do You Run To?” “Damaged,” she attempts to shrug off the casualty he makes of her trust, crying “No” as her denial mantra. “Never See Me Again,” she asks then states when he shows up again, wounds reopened. In the end she embraces a lethargic chill, a philosophical void, an emptiness as escape from pain. “I Believe In Nothing,” she repeats over and over. So there’s some heavy cake under that thick layer of pretty icing.
Add to and subtract from this record’s nihilistic end note that In the Realms of the Unreal (some 15,000 pages by Henry Darger) the Vivian Girls are the virginal harbingers of Christendom. Then consider the many tonal indications in the record’s first half that foreshadow its second (e.g. the gloomy chord descent of the chorus to “All the Time”) and how the second flashbacks to the first, be it with something as coincidental as similar beginnings to “Such a Joke” and “No” or as inevitable as all the guitar solos sounding the same because they seem untrained (but no less awesome for that). So all the happy songs sound kind of sad and all the sad songs sound kind of happy, melancholy and ebullience two threads wound tightly about the line of this record’s straightforward narrative without a single straightforward emotional cue.
Yes, there’s a distance between Vivian Girls and the listener. But this isn’t aloofness. This is the same distance you encounter when someone smiles as they quietly tell you something tragic; you can’t fully sympathize because while the feeling remains true the expression confounds. And that’s why it feels even more real and why you’re still touched. When the actor stops acting and just starts behaving, that’s when you believe. I believe in the Vivian Girls. In every gorgeous harmony that coats bitterness, in every ambition subjugated to truncated song structure and muffled production, in every bouncy beat beneath a baleful drawl somehow made of equally bouncy elements. So what if the experience is a little ambivalent, it’s richer for that. Affectation deconstructed, gestures dually construed, a world of joy in a world of hurt. Eat your heart out, Feist, this record really feels it all.