underground since'89

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Vivian Girls - Vivian Girls LP

Vivian Girls-Vivian Girls LP
Lately talk amongst people who play in underground bands is about whether or not Vivian Girls "deserve" all the hype they've been getting. Someone in a touring band I recently spoke to cynically commented on their use of a publicist to 'make it big'. When I replied that I had seen their first show, which was at a Brooklyn punk house party with the Old Haunts in 2007 and they didn't seem to be contrived in the slightest, but actually to be a part of the punk scene there, my friend was like 'that was all a part of their plan from the beginning', as if they were only playing that show to get punk cred but had bigger plans from the start. I was dubious, but kept it to myself. I remember the show--it was up several flights of stairs and full of punx. They didn't strike me as posers at the time, nor did they strike me as anything special. I actually spent most of their set hanging out with my NYC friends in one of the back bedrooms, trying to make the most of a room full of people I hadn't seen all in the same place since the early 90's--Carlos, Molly, Rop, Billy, Joaquin, Aaron Cometbus and more people I know less well but was still psyched to see. Since they were a new band made up of all women I made a point of checking out their songs when tour was over.
I was instantly amazed by Tell the World. Musically it sounded a lot like a song I wrote in 1986 with my teenage all girl group, Doris. I loved it but didn't expect anyone else to. So when it became apparent that they had mass appeal, I was confused and like everybody else, got distracted by the hype. Why is this music big all of a sudden?
Fast forward to a few months ago and the Old Haunts are playing (what would end up being our last show) with Vivian Girls at Craig's house in Olympia. I wait for them to play Tell the World. It's a basement show the PA is bad. I can't hear the vocals and the impact of the rest of their songs don't fully hit me. I continue to wonder what the big deal is, almost forgetting my initial reaction to hearing Tell the World.
That's the problem with hype. It distracts you from actually listening to the music. This week I finally had the album and the time to sit down and hear what they are doing musically. By now I have read the reviews, heard them get called C86 and read the rebuttal-they don't understand why people think they sound like the Shop Assistants, they are trying to sound like Dead Moon and the Wipers. This informs the way I hear the record. At first I dismiss the fast melodic songs as sounding too much like Tiger Trap. This made me revisit what I didn't like about Tiger Trap--they were trying to sound like the C86 bands and there was no edge to it, it wasn't punk. Some of their songs were well constructed and even good, but it left me with the same feeling that a lot of pop music does--emptyness, wanting more. I never felt that way about the Shop Assistants or Talulah Gosh. David from the Shop Assistants was listening to the Ramones. And as David Feck and Jon Slade recently argued in a 26 page interview with Comet Gain, Talulah Gosh was a punk band. Not to mention that Huggy Bear was influenced by Crass! So this makes sense when listening to Vivian Girls. They sound like C86 because they are a pop band who listens to punk. Or maybe they are a punk band who happen to write pop songs. Either way, they aren't like Tiger Trap, who were self-consciously cute and listening to Beat Happening and Talulah Gosh. Doris was a band in 1986 and we were listening to all this stuff. We couldn't play our instruments and didn't know how to write songs, but one of our better songs does actually sound a lot like Tell the World, but without the awesome harmonies.
Bringing me back to the actual record at hand. It's classic. There are three totally amazing songs on this album. Tell the World still being my favorite: "Keep it to myself no way/I'll tell the world about the love that I've found/He sees what I see/He feels what I feel" the song is about an obsession that becomes so immense it can't be contained and has to be openly declared. The song then becomes a testimony for us all to witness; a performance of authenticity. The tremulous vocals and uncertain-but-willful playing is the hook. When they hit all the notes and you notice that they almost miss a couple but don't, you start to listen to them playing together, drums and guitar, as if you are in the group yourself--a drummer listening to the bass player, a guitarist listening to the drummer--and as it all comes together, it starts to sound perfect and by the end you are convinced that it doesn't matter that they are relatively new at playing together, maybe at playing instruments at all, you are just totally grateful that they took the time to learn how to play well enough to play the songs all the way through without stopping and actually get them documented, on vinyl no less! Turn the record over. The first song on Side Two, Where Do You Run To, is so amazingly sad and good sounding. The lyrics ask "where do you go/where do you go/why do you leave me all alone?", then the harmonies take it up a notch for the chorus and the guitar lead is reverb-fueled and notey, melodic, really great. My brain is like, 'yeah where the fuck do you go', feeling betrayed, angry. Then I realize, wait, this is only a story, not my life and I don't need to get upset. Instead I sing along and imagine writing a song like this as soon as I get a free day to sit down with the 4 Track. A few songs later, when they sing "I'm having a really hard time walking down the street" and in the next verse "I'm having a really hard time getting out of bed" in Never See Me Again you believe them. There is an emotion there you just can't fake. We've all felt it. It feels like the Wipers. Yet, unlike the Wipers, who are resigned to things being dark and doomy, there is a hopefulness here-- at least she wants to be walking down the street and getting out of bed. She is trying to overcome her situation, to move on, that's the point of the song. By the end of the record, which comes together with the incessant refrain "I Believe in, I Believe in Nothing" you have to turn it over to re-hear the songs where they do believe in something, because you now understand that nihilism is as fleeting as any emotion related to obsession. By this time you are hooked and will be listening to this record on repeat. That it's possible to hear it three times an hour ensures that you will listen to it at least six times a day for the next several days.
This is not the sound of pop music that is disposable, materialistic and shallow. It sounds like real people writing songs about their lives. Consequently, there is a necessity to it that is missing from most modern music. The Vivian Girls should not be dismissed because they are soft-sounding, too feminine or getting popular. They may live in Brooklyn but I hear them in a continuum with the Shaggs and the Carter Family. But who cares about genre-when people write songs about their lives and don't polish it up to sound perfect there is a kind of authenticity in it that we experience in our everyday lives but is increasingly rare in popular culture. In making this wonderful record, a reflection of life as it is lived and imagined, they are giving us something we need; an artifact that encourages us to tell our stories, to make our own records, to document our own lives. It's important to remember that "Participate!" was what was good about the C86 aesthetic, and 80's underground music in general.
The final question is the one we started with-- are Vivian Girls consciously trying to create the illusion of authenticity or are they 'for real'? These kind of questions, often unanswerable, are interesting, but maybe besides the point. Their record is real, whether or not their 'realness' is a pose. Isn't that non-knowing, that wondering, that searching for authenticity the essence of American folk music? And isn't the best folk music often a performance of the real? Isn't that what art is? It starts to make sense that they are named after the Henry Darger drawings. I suggest you stop talking about why they are so hyped and just start listening to their music. It's really good.


V. Ortuño said...

I couldn't agree with you more Tobi -- I heard of the Vivian Girls earlier this year when they played in Austin, but I didn't have a chance to see them. Some friends who saw the shows mentioned they were "terrible live", but was quickly surprised when I heard their LP for the first time. I've been enjoying them very much and haven't put the record down for the past 2 months now.
I believe people worry too much about what motives this or that musician has, turn something down because 'its too hyped' - yet don't bother listening to the music for themselves (or wait for a magazine to decide for them). I didn't know they had a publicist, but I feel as long as they are having fun, they get to travel the world and play music, and hopefully inspire people (especially women) to start bands - who wouldn't want that??
They all seem like very genuine girls and regardless, for this particular document of work they made---it speaks with honesty and a lot of feeling to me.

malacaligrafia said...

I didn't know about all this debate on their "realness" but I did know they were kind of hype because they sold out the first edition of the LP in a few weeks this august. Pretty fast!
I thought it was pretty cool to see a band listing The Wipers and The Shangri-Las as their influences -even if i wonder if it makes any sense to pay atention to myspace influences box nowadays-.
The album and the previous 7"s are great.