I liked Vivian Girls initially, but as soon as they became the most argued-over indie-rock proposition this side of, I dunno, Vampire Weekend, I tuned out—couldn't hear them through the noise. And I don't mean their staticky guitars, either (duh).
Vivian Girls get argued about as reflexively as any band in action right now, and while no band is the sum of its discourse, so much of it swirled around Vivian Girls that it's hard not to trip over despite your best efforts. Are they "real" punk or lo-fi or whatever? My reflexive answer to "Are they 'real' anything" questions is "Who the hell cares?" But excepting objects of fiery passion, those sorts of discussions get tired in a serious hurry, and in a world full of more great records than I'll ever even get to hear, wasting excess mental energy on a merely okay one is a fast ticket to Crankville.
Besides, I prefer Everything Goes Wrong, the group's new album, out September 8 on In the Red, to last year's Vivian Girls. Both albums are full of hazy, swarming guitars and buzzing high-harmony vocals that refract '60s-girl-group lovelorn lyrics (the highlights of Wrong are the rueful "Can't Get Over You" and "When I'm Gone") through a more-basic-than-basic ramalama instrumental approach. But Wrong is a more solid object in every way: longer (36 minutes rather than 21-and-a-half), heftier sounding, and a good deal tighter, fuller, and more confident than the debut. I don't necessarily expect it to quell all of their detractors—I've got trustworthy friends who claim Vivian Girls were the worst live band they've ever seen. But Everything Goes Wrong is clearly the product of three women who've been on the road a lot and have gotten inevitably better as a result.
Of course, a lot of people like Vivian Girls precisely because it's not tight or full or sharp: Its charm is that it frequently teeters on the verge of collapse. This is hardly new in indie rock (you wouldn't exactly call Pavement rigid), but the band's image as Early-Twentysomething Women Who Wear Tight Denim and Have Sloppy Haircuts and Live in Brooklyn, coupled with their determined amateurism, struck a spark in people, and not always in a good way. Idolator's Lucas Jensen put it this way: "Do you think that the Vivian Girls [would] go anywhere if they [were] from Wisconsin?" Others were less kind.
All of which seemed like whatever until December, when a video blog posted a Q&A of the band sitting in a bathtub and discussing social circles. There are a number of clear signals that they're joking around—drummer Ali Koehler starts out by mentioning living in a "music-community bubble"; bassist/vocalist Kickball Katy picks up with, "To counter your real answer with another real answer"; they trash-talk people who meet others by "going to the bar after work with their coworkers," as guitarist/vocalist Cassie Ramone tsk-tsks, before ragging on Applebee's and T.G.I. Friday's.
The band issued a retraction: "Irony," wouldn't you know it, was the key word. A friend who likes Vivian Girls more than anyone I know still winces at the video's mention: "Can't we move on from that?" (It's a sign how completely insider this whole thing was that someone would plea to "move on" from something almost no normal person knows about.) It made the band into poster girls for, as my friend encompassed it, "clichéd Brooklyn hipster idiots." People who wish to believe that the music of the fourth-largest urban area in the U.S. is homogenous (it isn't), that "hipster" is a specific type (parameters, please?), and that lo-fi indie rock is insular and full of itself (well...) had a ready-made, you-insulted-my-family target.
Maybe that's why I found that interview kind of ballsy; in many ways, it's the most resonant thing they've done, even more so than their music. Ill-advised and stupid and insular, absolutely: Irony or no, they came across as elitist jerks. But it isn't just because I'm an elitist jerk (hi, I write my opinions down for a living) that I understood. (Nor is it that, five years after eating a piece of chicken there that tasted like water—not chicken-flavored water or watery chicken, just water—you couldn't pay me enough to eat at Friday's again.)
The clip strikes me as three friends who thought they were being hugely obvious and that everyone would get their joke, but it backfired. There's something very identity- construction-in-progress about that. It doesn't make anyone punk rock, just young and uncertain but still ambitious enough to give it a shot and, like anyone who's trying, hopefully get better at it with time.