Vivian Girls’ Strange New World

The beloved punk band tries on a second chapter for size.

There’s a post on the MP3 indie blog Brooklyn Vegan from 2009 titled “the member of Vivian Girls who dated a member of Japanther stole Mika Miko’s pants.” The post itself is primarily an embed of the interview Canadian radio personality Nardwuar filmed with Vivian Girls, and the title refers to a story guitarist and vocalist Cassie Ramone tells during the video. You would be forgiven for thinking this sounds pretty innocuous. It isn’t.

In the comments, an anonymous user with the screen name ‘discriminating tastes in music’ offers, “viv girl in the middle = good lookin? not so much. not sure why peeps dig the junkie look. the redhead on the left is wholesome and american as apple pie.”

The “redhead on the left,” for what it’s worth, is bassist, co-vocalist, and founding member Katy Goodman. And this isn’t even a particularly awful comment by Vivian Girls’ metric.

Vivian Girls’ story is distinct because it’s wholly inseparable from the eras in which it occurred: pre-#MeToo, well within the heyday of influential MP3 indie blogs like Brooklyn Vegan and Terminal Boredom, and smack dab in the middle of the splintering indie rock scene where subgenres like garage rock and dream pop were fracturing and self-defining. Vivian Girls were also fundamentally Brooklyn, so much so that writers invoke the rumble of the subway to describe the band’s lo-fi noise pop jangle. And the music had that cool-kid Greenpoint edge at a time when those aesthetics felt meaningful rather than cliched.

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Goodman and Ramone met as high school students and began playing basement shows in 2007. The band released their self-titled debut in 2008, and drummer Ali Koehler joined shortly after. Vivian Girls toured the world, opening for Yo La Tengo, Jay Reatard, and Sonic Youth. Back home in New York and despite the detractors, the trio gained a fiercely devoted following with their melodic, harmony-heavy take on punk.

Two albums followed, 2009’s harsher, more-noise-than-pop Everything Goes Wrong and 2011’s shiny, melodic, and ’60s girl group-influenced Share the Joy. Since the band called it quits in 2014, music writers have issued post-mortems insisting Vivian Girls were too good, too different, too singular in their vision for their time. But they were also women — women who didn’t pantomime Joan Jett, Stevie Nicks, or any other deemed-acceptable feminine rock figure. They were women who found success within the overwhelming male Brooklyn DIY scene by sounding like the Ramones at a soda fountain, and the blogosphere crucified them for it.

There is a genuine desire to separate the Vivian Girls’ narrative from the misogyny its members endured, especially as the band reunites and releases fourth album Memory. Their return in the era of moderated comments and a lessened tolerance for spewing misogyny, for many, feels like a second chance at a narrative that reads like a cautionary tale.

The announcement of the reunion itself drew personal recollections from Hether Fortune, the frontwoman of now-disbanded Oakland rock outfit Wax Idols. She tweeted that being a woman making music in 2009 was “a shit show.” Goth pop artist Zola Jesus replied commenting on “the misogynist wrath” of Brooklyn Vegan and Terminal Boredom. Even Koehler chimed in, adding that reviewers fixated on “our heights/legs/bodies.”

And there’s always more where that came from: more war stories and more sexist comments. But for the first time in eight years, there’s also more Vivian Girls, and a new generation of listeners with minimal tolerance for sexist vitriol. That alone is something to celebrate.

Vivian Girls

Oct. 25-26, The Chapel. Tickets $25.

Five Other Bands We’re Excited About

The Pharcyde

Sept. 13, Great American Music Hall

Long before the terms “alternative rap” and “conscious rap” were subjects of heated debate on internet hip-hop forums, there was The Pharcyde, the still-influential South Central L.A. rap quartet that broke out of the late ’80s and early ’90s undergroud club circuit. These days The Pharcyde is frequently listed alongside De La Soul, Digable Planets, and A Tribe Called Quest as groups emblematic of soulful, consciousness-minded ’90s hip-hop; “Passin’ Me By” and “Runnin’” are bona fide classics. Hell, NPR called the group’s 1992 debut Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde “a complete artistic statement.” That, unlike the merit of their respective genre, is not up for debate.

Jonathan Richman

September 24-25, Swedish American Hall

The music industry has an increasingly small number of feel-good stories, which makes the Jonathan Richman renaissance all the more wonderful. After several years in thrall of the Velvet Underground, Richman formed the Modern Lovers and released exactly one self-titled album in 1976 — it’s influence on contemporary punk and indie rock bands can hardly be overstated. By the ’90s, he had made a country record and transformed into a quirky, complex balladeer — 1992’s I, Jonathan is a wildly funny and brilliantly realized collection of frills-free child-of-the-’60s rock. It’s high time he ascended to underground icon status. It’s even better that he’s alive to enjoy it properly.

Jenny Lewis

Sept. 28, Fox Theater

Jenny Lewis has been many things, namely child star, Rilo Kiley frontwoman, member of The Postal Service, and (most prominently) solo indie rock songwriter without a dud in the discography. Her most recent album, On the Line, has appeared on seemingly every single “best albums of 2019 (so far)” list since its spring release. And it really is a marvelous record, combining her effortless wit, meandering observations, sparkling guitar riffs, and classic ’70s pop — that she recorded it using Carole King’s Tapestry piano is just the cherry on top. Taken together, it feels like bearing witness to an American pop and rock writer at the height of her powers. What an absolute delight that is.

The Distillers

Oct. 22, The Warfield

The Distillers always felt suspended between moments: formed in 1998, the hardcore punk band was too late for the heyday of ’90s grunge and Riot grrrl punk; with the release of final album Coral Fang in 2003, they bowed out prior to the pop-punk explosion of the mid-2000s. (That said, the band has spent time in the studio this year and a new album is reportedly on the way.) But despite punk’s innate distaste for aging, The Distillers’ throttling catalog feels as vicious and powerful as ever, and that has always translated plenty well live.

Sleater Kinney

Nov. 16-17, Fox Theater

It has been a complicated summer for near-universally beloved punk trio Sleater-Kinney, one that has transformed the band’s fall tour into something of a new proving ground. Shortly after releasing the first two singles from the band’s just-released and St. Vincent-produced album The Center Won’t Hold, longtime drummer Janet Weiss announced her departure, citing the band’s “new direction.” The double header in Oakland is already half sold-out, and it’s anyone’s guess how much the inarguably different new material and changed lineup will shape the band’s new incarnation. You’ll want to be in the room when it happens.

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