The Lowdown: Taking their name from reclusive American artist and writer Henry Darger, Brooklyn’s Vivian Girls set the gold standard for noise-pop during their first run before disbanding in 2014. Over the course of three albums, Cassie Ramone (lead vocals, guitar), Katy Goodman (harmonies, bass), and various drummers balanced beauty and chaos, offering a bracing brew of shoegaze elegance, punk aggression, and angst. Now, rejoined by Ali Kohler, who kept the beat for the second Vivian Girls LP, the rebooted trio uncorks the thrilling Memory, building a towering wall of sound that makes the group’s previous efforts seem mild by comparison. No doubt some credit goes to producer and The Fall alumnus Rob Barbato, whose resume includes sessions for Ramone’s The Babies and Goodman’s La Sera.
The Good: Placed at the top of the mix, Ramone’s massive guitar overdubs encompass an exhilarating universe of textures and styles, spanning everything from droning psychedelia to bright power-pop to corrosive metal. Though Vivian Girls were once considered lo-fi, Memory rejects the label with detail-oriented production, revealing each little buzz and clang of her playing in all its rattling glory.
Sitting just below thousands of guitars, the vocals provide numerous pleasures, despite rarely coming into full view. Ramone spins deadpan tales of relationship hell and terminal self-loathing with sullen authority as Goodman and Kohler add high, lonesome harmonies to sweeten these grim testimonials.
On the soaring “Sick”, she exclaims, “I wanna hurl myself into the sea,” adding, “I lost it all/ My final brain cell banged against the wall.” The anxious “Your Kind of Life” turns a standard account of getting dumped (“Something happy has died, and now what’s become of me?”) into an epic saga. Worse, she’s a “Body with no life/ A heart without a soul” in the downcast ballad “Lonely Girl”. Ramone’s overblown laments often verge on absurd dark comedy, but they’re always entertaining.
When not wallowing in misery, Ramone skillfully renders relatable and vivid situations through her words. That can be heard in “Sludge” where she chants, “We get up on the freeway and our breath stinks of alcohol,” and in the exuberant “Waiting in the Car”, which closes the show on a rare, upbeat note, capturing the thrill of hitting the road with a future lover.
The Bad: There’s serious songcraft to be discovered on Memory, but the relentlessly big sonics make it hard to distinguish between tracks, revealing that more varied production would let allow each tune to be judged by its own merits. The sameness sets back an otherwise strong collection of songs.
The Verdict: Some reunions suck; others are a relief simply because they’re not embarrassing. Vivian Girls have defied the odds by reuniting for their best album yet.
Essential Tracks: “Most of All”, “Sick”, “Sludge”, and “Waiting in the Car”