Vivian Girls

15Feb09

(Kenny writing)

Fuzzy sound and lack of rhythmic imagination are generally signs of amateurism and youth, and while they can be infectuous live in the right setting, they are generally dead ends for recording artists.  There are exceptions.  Scrawl counts as my favorite band that managed to maintain such an apparently amateur sound over a decade and seven records.  They did so by relentlessly pursuing the musical implications of a particular, depressive proto-feminist subjectivity, their conviction driven by complicated (but out of tune) harmonies, direct melodies, lyrics driven by smart, meaningful hooks (I think I’m turning into a slut, there is nothing to walk away from, go ahead — take a swing) and a mostly slow, pounding rhythm.  Their great punk cover of Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted Snake” is the place to start getting it if you’ve never tried.  Without Scrawl, the sound of Sealter-Kinney — an infinitely more varied and virtuosic band — couldn’t have emerged.

Vivian Girls is an arty decendent of this approach.  As repetitive to the rock and roll ear as the Saharan music I’ve heard on Festival In the Desert and Group Inerane’s album, but with an up-top harmonic approach straight out of 1966 (think Moby Grape, or early Jefferson Airplane), these are post-Riot Grrrls who sound like they can’t play their instruments as a concept rather then because, well, they can’t play their instruments.  (I have no idea whether in fact they can or not.)  They also sound like they recorded these songs on 1966 recording equipment.  In doing this they come up with a strangely compelling concept, a soundscape that draws you into their world whether or not you “believe in nothing,” as they hook their last track.

I don’t love the record.  This is the kind of debut that could go somewhere, or not.  Unless you’re 20 and haven’t worked through lots of low fi debut albums before, this one won’t change your life.  But it is distinct and original enough to make this fan of Scrawl and Sleater-Kinney think they could have better in them, that something really interesting could come of it.

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2 Responses to “Vivian Girls”

  1. 1 schweitzito

    “…sound like they can’t play their instruments as a concept rather then because, well, they can’t play their instruments. (I have no idea whether in fact they can or not.)
    Does it matter if they can actually “play their instruments”? Does it ever?
    I love plenty of music by musicians who play well acording to traditionally accepted standards (which, of course, differ from genre to genre, culture to culture). But I stopped demanding that people know how to play properly after I first accidentally heard some free jazz on WKCR (Columbia U.) when I was 13 or so. I didn’t actually develop a taste for punk or free jazz until a few years later, I didn’t worry about what it meant that you could play — hey, I was a piano-lesson dropout at age 9, who was I to judge? AOR-heads I knew put down the Go-Go’s because there were rumors that they sped up their recordings because they couldn’t play fast enough and I just shrugged. For that matter, lip-synching didn’t make Milli Vanilli suck one iota more than they already did.
    But of course, this is the reverse — not hiding how badly you play but…playing badly on purpose? I hear this defense of modern painters, too (certainly not from you, Kenny) — if they really “know how” to paint, then it’s OK to fuck around. And 50-60 years ago some stodgy jazz critics tried to put down Thelonious Monk by claiming he didn’t know what he was doing at the piano — all those adjoining keys played simultaneously, the seemingly arhythmic pauses, the odd phrasing, the blunt pounding where something more deft seemed in order. But of course he was so deft he plonked right by stick-in-the-muds. And what, is Tom Waits supposed to show me he can sing like Bing or Elvis (or James Taylor?) before his croak is legitimized? Poppycock! Whether Vivian GIrls or the Mekons or the Sex Pistols or the Trashmen could “really play,” what matters is what they chose, or managed, to put on a given record. And at this point, both technical skill and ineptitude have long histories of proud moments, dead ends and irrelevancy. (And also note that as they stayed together as a group, the post-1985 Mekons did indeed accrue much interplay and individual musicianship. It’s just that in 1985 they weren’t willing to wait to say what they had to say until their drunken chops took shape, and also suspected that their shoddy aim was part of the message, which worked so well for them where for others it remained a mess –because they had something to say.
    By the way, after three successive plays, I think the VG’s record is pretty darn good, although I do wish they put the vocals a little more up front so I could figure out just how fresh their spin on desperation is. In any case, I don’t believe that they “Believe In Nothing,” and I mean that as a compliment.

  2. 2 kmostern

    Rock music is never interesting because it is well-played; it is interesting because it is interesting. However, even when a band starts out interesting in some way other then as players, it is essentially impossible to remain interesting over a seven albums and a decade without developing professionally as players. Think about the Clash: as musicians they developed dramatically between The Clash and London Calling. This does not prove that London Calling is a better album then the Clash. It does however suggest strongly that London Calling is a far better album then it would be had they not become much better as musicians in those two years. That’s the point. It takes a band as consciously arty as Vivian Girls to try to make great music from extremely primitive playing. (Consciously arty: we have a concept, we’re going to develop it even though we don’t really have the capacity to do so, because the concept is the thing, not the capacity.) But for them to be as good as I’d hope, one of the things that’ll happen is that they widen their range of musical expression.

    After all, Scrawl is only in my mid-list of favorite bands, and no one else likes them even as much as I do.


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