By Kier Wiater -Carnihan “I don’t want to be like the other girls”, sings Cassie Ramone on the opening track of Vivian Girls’ new album “Share The Joy” (Polyvinyl, 2011).
She shouldn’t feel so anxious.
Though the band is often mentioned alongside the “other girls” making waves with surf, girl group and garage-inspired records, most commonly Dum Dum Girls and Best Coast (featuring ex-bandmate Ali Koehler on drums), Brooklyn’s Vivian Girls have an emotional energy that sets them apart from their peers; a raw burst of universal stirrings we can all relate to, primarily (lack of) love and (lingering) loneliness. They make you want to mix their music into paint, travel back to the time of your first break-up and use it to decorate your teenage bedroom walls. The heavy thump of Fiona Campbell’s drums mimics the beat of a broken heart, and you can almost taste the tears that taint the noisy interplay between Cassie Ramone’s guitar and ‘Kickball’ Katy Goodman’s bass.
Ramone’s voice is key to all this. Goodman is actually the better singer (as evidenced in her side-project La Sera) but there’s a bored, laconic charm to the lead singer’s vocals. Chart-toppers like Adele may span a dozen octaves warbling their way around a love song and yet you struggle to believe one competently emoted word of it. Cassie Ramone sounds like she couldn’t care less and somehow you find yourself empathising with her band’s thrashy angst all the more. And though the cheery title of their new album might suggest otherwise, she’s quick to point out that the darkness is yet to desert them.
“I think that many of the lyrics on “Share The Joy” are as bleak as on “Everything Goes Wrong”. The songs I write are not so much reflective of what’s going on in my life as what’s going on in my head, and the things that are haunting me in a sense. Which usually ends up coinciding with my life but not always. It very often happens that I will write a song about something that happened years ago.”
“Basically, the lyrical story behind ‘STJ’ is one of alienation and reconciliation – ‘EGW’ is more of a tale of a fucked up nightmare journey and [debut album “Vivian Girls”] is more straightforward like a diary... in the beginning of the album there’s a sense of defiance which is quickly shot down and takes our narrator through a series of desperate pitfalls, after which they realize none of it really matters and learn how to be at peace with the pain and suffering in the world. But it sort of takes you back to the beginning because with the music there’s a lot of mirroring at work between the two sides of the album.”
This is reflected in both the opening and closing tracks clocking in at over six minutes each. That doesn’t sound particularly unusual until you consider that their snappy début album lasted only 21 minutes in its entirety. The extra room gives “Share The Joy” an enhanced palate of pace and tone, but Ramone admits it’s less a statement and more a happy accident.
“Both of those songs we jammed out in practice. We didn’t know how long they were at first. We thought they were maybe like 4 and a half, 5 minutes. Then we were recording our practices onto 4-track, and only then did we realize how long those songs were.”
Longer tracks are not the only surprises. Although they’ve recorded relatively faithful covers of David Bowie and The Chantels in the past, “Share The Joy” is the first of their albums to feature someone else’s song, the disturbing “Sixteen Ways” (which features the bloody lyrics “16 kids 16 ways / They shot my babies by mistake / I’m all alone on a midnight ride / My 16 kids all have died”). “[That song] is kind of a cover, by a band called Green On Red. I’ve loved the original for years, and one day I was playing guitar in my art studio and I just started singing the lyrics to these chords I was playing, which are totally different from the original chords. Katy and Fiona never even heard the original until after we’d recorded it. I think a lot of the time it’s kind of a cop out to cover a song on your LP, unless you do something original with it, and I think we succeeded in this case because we approached it the same way we approach our other songs, no preconceived notions on Katy and Fiona’s part.”
For all their spontaneity in the studio, the Girls’ love of touring is the cornerstone on which their success has been built; audiences have been consistently charmed by the obvious joy they experience playing live. Their encore used to be a particular highlight, with grinning members swapping instruments mid-song and building to a gloriously chaotic crescendo, but this practice was tempered because “we thought that was too shticky to do for a long time, so we decided that we would only do it once in each city (we cheated a few times). Best gig - Barcelona with Fiona over the summer. Incredible energy in that room! Worst gig - Coventry, England - we played a dance club with 1,000 people in it and only 5 people came to see us. It was one of the only times we’d ever gotten booed.”
Well, there’s no accounting for taste in Coventry. Nonetheless, their addictive live performances are what they’ve been trying to capture in the studio. “We do prefer to record live. We usually don't do that many takes - whenever we’ve done a bunch of takes we usually end up picking the first one anyway. On this album I think we averaged about four takes per song. There’s definitely this energy you get when you record mostly live that doesn’t come through as much in laboured recordings. With “Share The Joy” we spent a lot more time on the vocals and overdubs, though, so it definitely took a little while longer than most of our recordings have.”
The extra time spent on singing is particularly noticeable on new single “I Heard You Say”, which showcases the extra care they’ve taken concocting vocal harmonies.
“We were in a heavy phase of concentrating on harmonies in late 2009, around the time we recorded the cover of the Chantels’ “He’s Gone”. We would perform that song a cappella when we played live. It was around then that we wrote a lot of the new songs and decided to work really hard on the harmonies for the third album.”
Those harmonies are often closer than they are to some of their ex-bandmates. Whereas they’re still on good terms with the afore-mentioned Ali Koehler, previous drummer Frankie Rose recently let slip her own departure “was not amicable”. Ramone, however, is convinced that being periodically deserted by drummers has had no adverse effect. “Honestly, I don’t think it’s that weird. Bands change line-ups all the time. Almost every seasoned band I know has had three different drummers/bass players/etc. I think the only reason it’s ‘notable’ in our case is because Ali and Frankie have stayed in the media, and that we present ourselves as a unit as opposed to a songwriter with backing band.”
“We would have gotten a guy drummer if it was right at the time, but thankfully we’ve been lucky enough to play with both Ali and Fiona. I don’t really think I should get into it, but I will say this: Frankie is the only bandmate I’ve ever had who I’m on bad terms with. You can make with that what you will...”
The band certainly seem popular with their musical peers (they’ve collaborated with Sub-Pop three-piece Male Bonding and Ramone’s side-project The Babies with Kevin Morby of Woods has been gaining increasing attention) and are happy to enthuse about contemporary outfits as well as older musical (and literary) influences. “Current bands I like are Widowspeak, the Strange Boys, Earth Girl Helen Brown, Dutch Treat and the K-Holes. When we started we were influenced by girl groups and 80’s punk/hardcore - Wipers, Descendents, Dead Moon, etc. I’ve been reading a lot of Joan Didion - fantastic stuff. I’m planning on reading “Just Kids” by Patti Smith very soon. My best friend/former roommate just read it and she told me that according to the book, Patti Smith used to live literally right around the corner from us - so cool! ”
Vivian Girls are following in the punk legend’s footsteps in more ways than one, building up a loyal following with nothing but honest lyricism and exhilarating compositions, and sharing a concern for creativity over commercialism. Indeed, Ramone signs off by revealing that her own ambitions concern chapel bells rather than record sales.
“The [gig] I dream of? I would like to play at someone’s wedding as they are walking down the aisle.”
The offer’s on the table guys and girls: buy the record, propose to your partner, get Vivian Girls to play at your wedding party and, well, share the joy. Although maybe ask them to skip the song about sixteen children being shot.
Brooklyn’s Vivian Girls may write songs about sixteen children getting shot, but they’re not cruel. Their new album once again brings a refreshing mix of girly pop and vibrant guitars. The title says it all: “Share The Joy”.
Share The Joy