A Vivian Girls reunion is an act of antithesis. The garage rock trio — formerly Brooklynites, but now from L.A. — thrived on an urgency that was destined to implode, peppering the late aughts with three albums that felt conversely era-defining and out of time.
On the former front, Vivian Girls’ early output represented the 11th hour of both the “blog era” and the ascendant Williamsburg music scene. Like their former local peers, which included DIIV and Beach Fossils, they dashed out ephemeral records that seemed to be more concerned with the means of distribution than production. Songs scarcely eclipsed two minutes, conforming to a crunchy sound indebted to Spectorian girl groups and 80s hardcore. The Brooklyn bands of the day cut their music from the same general cloth, soaking their ramshackle punk in reverb and frying their Instagram posts with pseudo-vintage filters. The scene waxed nostalgic, but for no period in particular. In its search for sincerity, it found manufactured meaning.
But Vivian Girls cut deeper than the facade of their peers, nudging their work into timeless territory. While they worked within the DIY mold of their labelmates, they also stood out enough to draw the ire of cornballs/creeps in the comment sections of BrooklynVegan, unfairly dismissed as amateurs in the same scene that incubated acts like Blank Dogs and The Beets. Sure, the band eked tracks out of two-chord drones and plinking riffs, but they stretched these wireframe constructions into vast expanses of existential dread. In one breath, they covered Fraggle Rock songs without a trace of irony; in another, they shouted “I believe in nothing” with the same earnest fervor. Records like 2009’s Everything Goes Wrong pinpointed the same blend of naivety and morbidity that formed cults around their influences: Heavenly, The Urinals, et. al.
2019’s Memory — perhaps underselling itself with its title — makes an airtight case for Vivian Girls as something greater than the reminder of a bygone scene. Guitarist Cassie Ramone and bassist Katy Goodman haven’t tweaked much of their fast-paced and fuzz-caked formula this time around, but they’ve certainly refined the hell out of it. Never has the band sounded so imposing in a studio setting, reining their once-uncontainable feedback into a beefy wall of sound. Tracks like “Your Kind of Life,” in which Goodman’s frenetic bass lines navigate tunnels of delayed guitar, reveal the post-punk punch that previously lurked beneath swampy mixes. “Sludge,” the album’s third single, is the most impressive exploration of the band’s darker dispositions, knotting a cloudy tale of cosmic horror together with a howling solo that recalls My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything.
“You said it matters nothing of what God thinks / She kills us all,” sings Ramone, retreading old nihilist territory with sharper focus.
Even the more pop-oriented returns to form are more satisfying than before. Opener “Most of All,” clinging to the repetition of its title as the chorus hits, is supplemented by tight percussion and layers of distortion deployed at just the right time. “Lonely Girl” plays with dynamics to even greater effect, pivoting from dream pop dirge to menacing garage rocker on a dime.
As the second chapter of It runs in theaters, I can’t help but compare Vivian Girls’ depiction of Memory to Stephen King’s. In either work, the present self can only remember the existential terrors of adolescence by returning to the exact location from which they emerged. In Vivian Girls’ case, fear manifests itself in the void: in moments spent paralyzed by apathy, swallowed by routine, stripped of purpose. Coming home stronger and wiser doesn’t make the confrontation any easier — only more vivid.