Vivian Girls are the epitome of accessible cool. They may spill with composed indifference, but they actually give a shit. Their aloof vocals, candy harmonies and driving guitars give them an edgy allure, but they also divulge deep-set anxieties and sound like a group of friends you could easily be a part of. They’re musically snappy and sophisticated, but emotionally and aesthetically approachable—never overly intellectual or pretentiously styled. Vivian Girls became a band to fully invest in upon emerging as a leading act in Brooklyn’s noise-pop scene, and their 2008 self-titled debut album was both hailed as a classic and cynically dismissed.
As Noisey summarized in this 10-year retrospective, they inspired adoration, confusion and even abusive misogyny. While many identified with them on every level, some thought their sound was too primitive thanks to their unwavering devotion to scratchy production values. Others failed to appreciate their dirty, sweet cocktail of classic girl-group harmonies, DIY punk grit and doomy tints and simply grouped them with contemporaries like Dum Dum Girls or Crystal Stilts. Disgustingly, many men took to blogs and comment sections to scorn their supposedly simple-minded music and their unwillingness to conform to a dichotomy that’s thrust upon all-female bands: Either be punk radicals or angelic sex symbols. Lead vocalist and guitarist Cassie Ramone, bassist and backing vocalist Katy Goodman and drummer Ali Koehler weren’t trying to make a bold statement with their lo-fi punk, fringe haircuts and plebeian clothes, but they were crucified anyway.
After three albums and worldwide tours, they called it quits in 2014. In that time, Ramone released a solo album, Goodman continued with her project La Sera and Koehler played with Best Coast and Upset. Then, a few years later, the same thing that brought them together in the first place roped them back into it—pure, unadulterated fun. Goodman made a simple phone call to Ramone and Koehler, and luckily, they were all on the same page.
“We broke up because we had toured so extensively for such a long period of time,” Goodman tells Paste. “We played so many shows that we were all really exhausted. And then after we broke up, after a few years, I was like, ‘Huh, that was really fun. I wonder if they would want to do that again.’ And they both did. So we were like, ‘Cool.’ Life’s too short to not do fun stuff when you all want to.”
Vivian Girls didn’t reform to live out some display of pandering nostalgia via unaffordable vinyl box sets or lengthy tours without an intention of making new music. Returning to Vivian Girls meant coming back with a new album and picking up where things left off. Their new full-length, Memory, out now via Polyvinyl, is their first in eight years, and it doesn’t try to recreate the magic of their debut—it actually contends with its brilliance, using a sound that’s more weighty and bold.
“It felt really natural to start playing again with Cassie and Ali,” Goodman says. “Those were some very formative years of our lives, in our twenties and it’s kind of where I grew up, playing music with them. So when we got back together, it didn’t feel like we’d even missed a day. It felt like going home.”
The band largely credits producer and engineer Rob Barbato (Kevin Morby, The Fall) with their expanded sound—one that’s still grubby, but more grand. Cassie Ramone’s voice has never sounded this majestic or dreamlike. On songs like “Your Kind of Life” or “Something To Do,” Ramone sounds gauzy and elevated, almost jumping from one plush cloud to the next. Their wispy glimmers and punk rhythms are ever-present, each facilitating transcendence and turbulence. Memory isn’t necessarily a hi-fi record, but it’s the closest Vivian Girls have come to it. Goodman, who played on all four Vivian Girls albums, says the Memory recording sessions were unlike anything the band had experienced previously.
“Rob really pushed us in a way that I had never felt pushed before in a studio with a producer,” Goodman says. “We were doing our thing, but with Rob being like, ‘You could do that thing better!’ And we were like, ‘Okay, let’s do it better!’ And then we did and it was awesome. We would play and look at each other like, ‘Hell yeah! That was the one!’ And then we would just hear Rob over the speaker being like, ‘That was great. Let’s do it again.’ And we’re like, ‘Oh, no!’”
Despite the painstaking amount of takes, the band couldn’t be more pleased with the results, even considering it among their best work, which is a high bar to reach.
“In my opinion, this is our best record, like performance-wise and energy-wise, and the songs are great too,” Goodman says.
Memory’s 12 songs are occupied by loneliness, breakups, hopelessness, the passage of time and overcoming setbacks. They explored many of these themes on their three previous albums in varying degrees, but there’s something different about these emotions in one’s thirties versus one’s twenties. As pressures to find a romantic partner and settle into independent happiness start to mount, existential dread feels just a bit heavier. It’s a record that feels the clocks ticking, but it takes a moment to vent and reach into the darkest corners before emerging on the other side. Ramone doesn’t get into much detail about the events that inspired her lyrics, but she provides all we need to know through the restless, unsettled nature of these songs.
“A lot of weird shit happened in my life over the past five years,” Ramone says. “I feel like my songs have always kind of been about stuff like that, but the past five years have been a very unique brand of trippiness. I wanted to convey where I’ve been at, and hopefully that message has come through to people listening to the record.”
One reason Vivian Girls are so special is that they’re not interested in taking note of the constantly changing musical landscape. They’d rather just make the music they want to make and do what they do best—make smudged, harmony-laden pop songs with a punk motor.
“I’m always trying different stuff depending on what mood I’m in, but I’ve kind of approached it the same since I’ve been in my early twenties,” Ramone says. “Just pick up an instrument and go on a little adventure and see what comes out of it.”
“We are a band existing in the world regardless of what is coming in and out of fashion,” Goodman adds. “We just kind of do our thing.”
This speaks to the us-against-the-world mentality that made them so appealing in the first place. Despite relentless criticism, their unit stood firm and unfazed. Even though their band was impenetrable, all of the failed relationships they sang about stung just as hard for listeners who cherished their records, and their barrelling angst brought communal exhilaration. Vivian Girls made people want to be a part of their team.
“I definitely do think we approach things like a gang,” Goodman says. “‘Band is gang’ was our motto for a long time.”
Besides their ride-or-die friendships with each other, what keeps this trio coming back for more is a musical bond they haven’t found in other projects.
“It’s really hard for me to pinpoint it,” Ramone says. “Playing music with all other women is really cool and it just feels really good. I tried to front other rock bands after we broke up and it was different. I think there’s a certain je ne sais quoi when we all get together that we can capture something that we can’t without each other, but I don’t really know what it is.”
Goodman simply describes it as “The sum is greater than the parts.”
Memory retains the essence of their steamy pop vocals and punk clamor, but its metallic sheen and intentional production give these songs room to stretch. It’s an utterly forlorn record, dressed in surfy reverb, bolstered by murmuring guitars and rooted in emotional upheaval. The trio’s noise-pop might be out of step with the mainstream music world, but they couldn’t be more in sync with each other or the uneasiness that we all carry around. For anyone who’s not onboard with this talented trio, Vivan Girls aren’t the least bit concerned. They’re still living by the words that have carried them this far—“band is gang.”
Memory is out now via Polyvinyl. Watch Vivian Girls’ full show from SXSW 2009 below.