The return of Vivian Girls is a triumph of determination, musical spirit and the will to keep your voice alive in a soul-crushing world. The Brooklyn (now L.A.-based) punk trio’s self-titled debut was a breath of fresh blurt when it came out in 2008 — bright, slashing lofi rock and roll that served as a welcome corrective to indie-ish music’s late-2000s turn towards atmospheric slickness, typified by then-trendy chillwave. Yet, even as they were winning praise among peers and critics, opening for the likes of Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth and building a fanbase, Vivian Girls were also forced to endure an especially brutal version of late-blogosphere/early-Twitter-era misogyny (including one prominent internet jerk referring to their music as “slutwave”). “I remember crying a lot!” singer-bassist Katy Goodman recently told Rolling Stone‘s Suzy Exposito. “I would look out into the crowd [at shows] and see the one person who looked bored or mad. Being an anonymous internet troll was still a new thing to us… We felt like if we could just meet them, they wouldn’t hate us.”
The band broke up in 2014, three years after putting out their third album, 2011’s hopefully titled Share the Joy. Since then, singer-guitarist Cassie Ramone has released a solo album and formed the Babies with Kevin Morby, bassist Katy Goodman formed La Sera, a duo with her husband, and drummer Ali Koehler played with Best Coast and Upset, bands that shared Vivian Girls’ love of beach-y distortion and sharp melodies. Now, they’re back with the fantastic new Memory, unafraid to show their scars as they find new ways to nuance a sound that beautifully takes Eighties and Nineties indie noise back to Sixties girl groups, surf-rock and California pop. “Sick again, more often than not at the hands of men,” they sing on the single “Sick,” their group vocals echoing against a wailing wall of fuzzy buzz like the Ronettes cutting a track with Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine behind the boards. You can hear echoes of Husker Du’s Greg Norton in the way Goodman’s bass buoyantly pushes the songs, and Tommy Ramone in Koehler’s clipped, forceful patterns, while Cassie Ramone’s guitar playing recalls Greg Sage of the Wipers in its layered, zig-zagging assault.
The tough grandeur of their voices is sunny yet stark, simultaneously evoking New York mean streets and endless California skies, the sound of musicians who have their own unique way of channeling rock and roll history; sometimes their lineage is mapped out specifically, as on “Something to Do,” which alludes to the Shangri-Las’ heartbroken masterpiece “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” the most haunting song of the girl group era. Elsewhere, the bracing guitar chime and sweet, secret-sharing vocals of softer moments like “Mistake” or “At It Again” recall indie greats like cuddle-core tunesmiths Tiger Trap or the spiked jangle of New Zealand’s Look Blue Go Purple.
One of the many striking things about listening to Memory is the way their echo-laden voices hang above, and a little behind, the blitz and blur of the music, sounding stranded or abstracted, swirling in hazy reverie. It gives the romantic betrayal in songs like “Most of All” and “Your Kind of Life” an extra sense of drifting aloneness. and on “Sludge,” an image of drinking and driving and ending up “back at your place at the dawning/Holding you so tight that I can feel you breathe,” it gives the lyrics’ aimless freedom an eerie undercurrent.
But the most enjoyable and heartening element here is the fun of witnessing people making music together again years after it seemed like they might’ve been robbed of that experience by forces they fought but couldn’t stop. You hear it in the way “All Your Promises” swells from curt, simple drone-pop to gargantuan guitar symphony, with shards of sweet dissonance rising above the din like waves on a winter sea, or in the gorgeously shredding title track, a perfect two-minutes of lyrics that purge the past and guitars that race for the future: “everything that came before is just an empty shell,” they sing. It’s the sound of yesterday’s hard times exploding into tomorrow’s possibilities.