While there is a lot of new music that I listen to and appreciate, I do tend to think that there is a process going on whereby the vast majority of music that has been released since the mid-1990s rehashes old genres rather than doing anything new. I don’t want to think this – it sounds like the kind of cliché produced by every grumpy old curmudgeon since the inception of recorded music – but when I think about new genres which have come about since, say, trip hop, I have to wonder what really counts as such – Folktronica? Dubstep and grime? Glitch? Many of the currently lauded acts seem to be those who are very successful rehashers of olds genres, particularly when those genres were little known in their original incarnations and thus sound new to the majority of listeners and critics (for example, The Horrors = The Chameleons, The Knife = Switchblade Symphony).
However, sometimes an act comes along which surprises you. There is a question about whether taking old genres and melding them together produces something which is actually original, or which only seems so – that is, is it more than the sum of its parts? When I first listened to Vivian Girls, I liked them a lot, but I felt like I had definitely heard this sound before – and that seemed to be the general critical consensus. But the more I listened to their work, the more I couldn’t really think of any other act which had this sound – rather, what I was actually experiencing was a sense of familiarity which the music contains which is not a result of a lack of originality, but rather of the artistry with which these songs hook into your brain while nonetheless never being obvious. The sound itself, to take the lazy path of description, is a combination of garage and girl groups, shoegaze, punk and no wave: fuzzy scuzzy guitars, distortion, catchy hooks, often-indecipherable vocals and beautiful harmonies, all with the rough-edged sense that this was thrown together in a few days (which was, apparently, the case) and a delightful raucousness which precisely balances those hooks and harmonies.
While their second album, Everything Goes Wrong (2009) has some wonderful moments, the first, clocking in at twenty-two minutes or so (and that’s ten songs, folks) is a masterpiece, an absorbing, joyous and cathartic experience which also happens to contain individual tracks which will worm their way into your brain and groove around there without giving rise to the slightest hint of irritation. The lyrics tend to the exploration of love and its loss, but given the sixties influence, this is no problematic thing, and their shoegazy incoherence also means that this sweetness does not cloy – having said which, perhaps my favourite track, ‘No,’ consists solely in repetitions of that one syllable. The darkness which can also be found at times is foreshadowed in their chosen moniker, a reference to the work of outsider artist Henry Darger whose work combined sweet kitcshiness with graphic brutality and an obsession with the child – a combination which seems quite appropriate for the contradictions which are balanced and embodied here. The finest qualities of the album are embodied in a sense of irrepressibility – the undemanding demandingness of the Vivian Girls’ bubblegum atavism.