Halfway through Vivian Girls’ third record Share the Joy, front-grrrl Cassie Ramone rips through a dark, frenetic solo on the album’s powerful centerpiece, “Sixteen Ways,” a fierce cover of a 1985 track by Paisley Underground punk band Green on Red. For thirty seconds, Ramone’s burning guitar work charges forward, the black slab of sugar-psych suspending the record’s vengeful climax. The solo simmers. The drums chug forward. Ramone creeps back up, with fire in her voice, and inserts an important line of her own: “I told my girls they had nothing to fear.” The record bops, rings, drones, thinks. But this is, undoubtedly, its definitive moment.
Gender is unapologetically performed all over Share the Joy, and to miss that is to listen with one ear clogged. Ramone coincidentally uses that word—“girl”—sixteen times on Share the Joy, as opposed to the one “girl” on 2008’s Vivian Girls, and one on 2009’s Everything Goes Wrong. Intentional or not, the increased same-sex address is symbolic. Whereas the band’s first two records were full of lovesick boy ballads, Share the Joy knows better.
Sonically, Share the Joy maintains what Vivian Girls devotees have obsessed over since 2007: the band’s thundery, fuck-it-all punk grit combined with the candied spirit of Spectorian 60s girl groups. It’s the echo-centric sound Slumberland bands like Black Tambourine made popular in the 80s indie underground and, perhaps unknowingly, the Vivian Girls brought to a new generation of music fans on their 2008 debut. On Share the Joy, Cassie Ramone’s greatest expansion lies in her enlivened lyrical output. “Trying to Pretend” prefaces “Sixteen Ways” with an empowering femme-punk anthem that sees Ramone finally calling some dude out for his shit, when she shouts, “Don’t walk away from me again! I’m not the one trying to pretend!” It’s haunting, angry, thoughtful, and—compared to their previous records—an ideological progression.
Vivian Girls and Everything Goes Wrong were external records, short-and-sweet soundtracks for weekends or morning commutes. On the debut’s shiners, “Where Do You Run To” and “Damaged,” Ramone shouts lonesome lines about chasing old boys and meeting new ones. These were fun, social songs, but hollow, their emptiness captured on tracks like 2009’s “You’re My Guy,” where Ramone is a “mess” in need of “mental help,” second guessing her “empty mind.” Or “Going Insane,” where Ramone literally sings, “Does he know, does he know, that I don’t have a brain?”
And so, indeed, Vivian Girls are up to something new on Share the Joy, which stands in matured contrast to the band’s earlier records. Share the Joy presents a more introverted narrative, which makes sense: it was recorded at their friend’s home studio, and the entire thing is layered with the warmth of an old tape machine. Setting the record’s contemplative tone, six-minute opener “The Other Girls” is a song I would listen to alone in my car, if I could drive, speeding down an empty highway to the beach—its notes suggest their recent years of road-time, with hints of shy, spatial weariness. It’s crisper and clearer than the scuzzy openers of their past records, with the track’s minute-long guitar solos allowing room for reflection. The lyrics, again, exude strength and grrrl-power, as Cassie repeats, “I don’t want to be like the other girls” and “I don’t want to lose myself.” She doesn’t want to try too hard, or lie, she just wants to spend her time inside, making it clear: she only needs herself to be happy.
Concepts of introspection and power are also at play on the early track “I Heard You Say,” when Cassie sings, “He’ll never hold me in his arms again,” and later on the vintage call-and-response of “Take it As It Comes,” when Cassie advises bassist Katy Goodman to stop caring about a dumb guy. As Ramone sings, “You’ve gotta think with your head girl, not with your heart,” she continues to carve the Vivian Girls’ unique spot between modern fuzz-pop and their feminist predecessors.
That’s not to say the record doesn’t have its flaws. I didn’t care for the high-pitched pop of “Dance (If You Wanna)” at first, or six-minute album closer “Light In Your Eyes”—they seemed weird and misplaced, but grew on me. The album’s most interesting tracks are the morbid, raucous ones, like “Lake House,” previously recorded for the 2009 compilation The World’s Lousy With Ideas Vol. 8. “Death” and “Vanishing of Time” are equally dark and meditative musings on mortality—catchy and cathartic as anything the Vivian Girls have done, and undoubtedly some of their most interesting songwriting.
READING OTHER REVIEWS of Share the Joy, I am fuming, in fact, I WANT TO SCREAM AND THROW MY COMPUTER AT A WALL. I’d love to write about this record without bringing up such seemingly archaic matters, but the biggest misfortune of Share the Joy is that it highlights how laughable the boys-club hivemind of male-dominated rock criticism remains in 2011.
I wouldn’t expect a dude in Los Angeles or Chicago to understand or appreciate this record as much as me, a girl in New York, who sees Vivian Girls pumping the lifeblood of my city’s longstanding underground musical traditions. Those dudes didn’t see Vivian Girls close down McCarren Park Pool with Sonic Youth in 2008; they didn’t thrash around to their set during the final months of legendary Bushwick venue Market Hotel’s activity in 2010. But where critics should have credited this album as a milestone for one of today’s most important young indie rock groups, their reviews have been inadequate and sexist, bizarrely pinning Vivian Girls, like paper dolls, to stoned-out, dolled-up pop bands from the bubbly West Coast, suggesting that they ought not move beyond a one-dimensional, short-and-sweet sound to something more substantive. A fair review would grapple with the record’s content, not pigeonhole the band before actually listening. I can’t help thinking, do you understand New York music? How do you not see this as an important piece in its lineage? Do you like The Ramones and Shangri-Las anymore, bro? Or only Odd Future?
These are weighty claims, I know. But sometimes you need to call people on their shit, or culture is doomed. The Vivian Girls have remained close to the DIY ethos from which they spawned, and for that, they’re role models. They’ve channeled maturity into the aspects of their music that matter, and for careful listeners, Share the Joy is a pretty feminist record. As the Vivian Girls continue to develop their identity, their contributions to indie rock have never been clearer.