Music Reviews

Vivian Girls Memory

(Polyvinyl) Rating - 8/10

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).

The noise-pop trio was always pushing ahead, leaving behind a short, though influential, run that would stand out within the small print of any homogenized boutique label. But once the "side project" floodgates opened, you could tell that they were ready for a change of pace—drummer Ali Koehler left the band to play with Best Coast, Cassie Ramone split her songwriting time with The Babies, and Katy Goodman had a plan B with La Sera (which has stood the test of time with its current four-album run). As a project, Vivian Girls began to feel like an afterthought—best documented in 2011's credible, yet patchy Share the Joy, which sounded like they were trying to broaden their scope without a solid foundation. The woozy, steadier pace of Joy lowered the intensity of their previous two efforts, alluding too closely to the California pop influences they originally meant to disrupt.

Set aside any excuses to undermine their talent (Vivian Girls were great at being "imperfect," after all), and what you get is a trio that knew how to write tuneful hooks that draw you back for repeated listens. Having Koehler back only strengthens their musical bond, as Memory circles back to their formative period with a wiser, more complex vision of their past. What they missed is moot at this point, as album opener Most of All demonstrates, returning to the pleasant ramshackle of their self-titled debut. Ramone, who wrote most of the lyrics, reveals distressing themes that usually revolve around big choruses—like in At it Again, where she measures her self-worth with firm conviction.

Upon first glance, the textural contrasts in Memory can range from subtle to striking. On I'm Far Away, Ramone bids a bitter farewell to New York City (she now resides in Los Angeles with Goodman and Koehler) over a mucky bass tone that bounces against her spindly guitar lead. It sounds familiar in structure to the slightly more spacious Everything Goes Wrong, except that she now cares to fill their longer songs with a guitar solo or two. The aptly-titled Sludge is the heaviest they've ever sounded, sweetening its escapist, desert rock fuzz with their indelible harmonies. The level of songwriting sophistication here far outweighs any of the late eighties indie-pop they often get compared to, whose attempts to alter their cozy chord progressions were minimal, at best.

Something to Do is the one single on Memory that is emblematic to the Vivian Girls of yore, so it made sense to release it early—most likely to reintroduce those who may have forgotten their undying affection for both love and reverb. It's a healthy way to start with a clean slate, but there's nothing simplistic about how these songs manage to sound so robust—even when they sound hazy and dreamlike. Mistake is mesmerizing, a reflection on missing someone that gradually coddles you with a radiant strum, later to rattle you to your core. The multi-part scorcher of All Your Promises provides a similar effect, the album's emotional centerpiece, a brooding lament on lost love that holds its tension throughout its grand, blazing soundscape. The trio has experimented with longer songs before, but never have they sounded this dynamic—controlling the song's mercurial flow with taut efficiency.

In many ways, Memory poignantly conveys how time has caught up with the Vivian Girls. It may look into the past, but the trio are not the same anymore both creatively and personally—and the time they took apart to explore other avenues works to their benefit. Armed with a deeper understanding of those trying times, and each other, the trio moves forward—and live in harmony with it. [Believe the Hype]