Monday, January 27, 2014

When I'm Gone: The End of the Vivian Girls

Around the middle of the 2000s, there were a few years when it seemed like a ton of indie rock kids rediscovered the pleasures of vintage Guided by Voices and Exile in Guyville all at once. As a result of this (or because all of these kids were broke), lo-fi briefly became a viable trend again. After all of the initial lo-fi excitement subsided, most of these bands were promptly forgotten, but a few left us with records that still stand up to their initial hype. Wavves’ second album Wavvves remains a delightfully cracked collection of surf rock tunes. The Thermals’ first few records, and especially its first album More Parts Per Million, are packed with songs that are still as catchy as they were a decade ago. Times New Viking and No Age ripped apart pop and punk with the kind of noise that only the cheapest recording technology can provide. And a few psychedelic garage punks, including Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees, moved past their lo-fi beginnings to create some of the most exciting catalogs in 21st century rock.

While they were never quite the best of their class of lo-fi rockers, the Vivian Girls possessed an easygoing charm that, paired with their impressive songcraft, pushed them through one of the most consistently satisfying careers of any of their contemporaries. They broke up last week, putting a fitting cap on a final phase of their run that saw the band’s members being pulled in different directions by new ambitions.

The band first garnered attention for its 21 minute long self-titled debut in 2008. Its ten songs were all hit-and-run bursts of garage rock, sweetened with the occasional ‘60s-style girl group harmony. You could call the record twee, but that is more dismissive than a record of its caliber deserves. Another album, Everything Goes Wrong, followed in 2009, and what the band lost in brevity—the album runs for a comparatively long 35 minutes—it made up for in more developed songwriting and a slightly higher level of fidelity. Tunes like “I Won’t See You,” “Double Vision,” and “Out for the Sun” reveal a harder edge to the band’s sound and lodge in the brain immediately on first listen. Everything Goes Wrong was definitely a worthy follow-up to their debut.

I saw the band play at a small, dirty club called the Summit in Columbus in August 2009 when they were touring in support of Everything Goes Wrong. It was just a great rock ‘n roll set in cramped space, entirely free from pretension or anything resembling spectacle. They tore through most of the songs from their two albums in a reckless outpouring of musical energy, and it was some of the most fun I had all year. It was intimate enough that when “Kickball” Katy Goodman jumped off stage (well, more like stepped off stage, since it was only about a foot or two above the ground) to play a song in the crowd I had to quickly move out of the way of her bass to avoid getting smacked in the head more than once. The show ended, appropriately for a garage rock show, with a cover of “Louie Louie,” featuring guest vocals by the Summit’s visibly drunk owner.

The band’s third album, 2011’s Share the Joy, found them polishing things up a bit (though not too much) and stretching their sound in not always effective ways. The opening and closing songs both pass the six-minute mark, a decisive shift for a band whose older songs rarely cracked three. The band’s producer, Jarvis Taveniere of Woods, injected some of his own band’s sprawling, folky noodling into the mix, but this addition proved a poor fit for the trio. Elsewhere, as on “Take it as it Comes,” they switched things over to a brighter pop sound. These new directions would turn out to be both very fruitful (eventually) and a poor fit for the band’s current configuration.

In the years since Share the Joy, the band’s three members explored both of that album’s new styles, the poppier sound and the psychedelic garage folk sound, with side projects like La Sera, the Babies, and Upset. All three of those projects, La Sera and Upset especially, have put out albums much better than Share the Joy, to the point where that third Vivian Girls record sounds more like a dry run for the new directions of their new bands than an actual Vivian Girls album. Every time one of those new bands put out a record, the Vivian Girls seemed more and more like a band that no longer needed to exist. It served and fulfilled its purpose for two albums, and disengaged after a third that set the stage for each member’s futures. The announcement that the band is calling it quits could probably have happened a couple of years ago when the Vivian Girls stopped being an active, going concern. It was clearly the right time for this to happen, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing that they’re gone.

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