In early 2008, the indie scene was steadily pulsating with synthetic electro-pop.
And then, there were the Vivian Girls.
Their 2008 self-titled debut, clocking in at a breathless 22 minutes, was a hard-hitting expose of 20-something post-Bush-administration angst that teemed with nihilistic sing-a-longs; they do, after all, have a song titled “I Believe in Nothing.”
In the years following the Vivian Girls’ debut and their 2009 follow-up Everything Goes Wrong, the scene had again shifted, and this time, in their favor.
Lo-fi noise-pop/punk/rock outfits bloated the blogosphere with the good, the bad and the wannabes.
The Vivian Girls no doubt played a major role in revitalizing the lo-fi movement and, much like their male counterparts No Age, arguably paved the way for the likes of Best Coast and the Dum Dum Girls.
Yet, much like No Age, the Vivian Girls arguably did it better than their successors, proving that, at least when it comes to crafting noise-pop tunes, the East Coast is indeed the better coast.
Until Share the Joy.
I don’t wanna be like the other girls, guitarist/vocalist Cassie Ramone sings in the opener “The Other Girls,” which serves as the record’s thesis statement.
No one can blame Ramone for not wanting to fall in line with the likes of the Dum Dum Girls with their too-close-for-comfort band moniker.
But Share the Joy becomes a self-conscious attempt to break both the band’s mold and the mold of what has been deemed acceptable in the present-day indie rock scene.
In their most hi-fi record to date, the Vivian Girls shed their fuzzed-out guitars and layers of drone to present a subtle yet clear change in pace and technique.
But in doing so, they hit a bit of an identity crisis, teetering between a new, glossed-over sound and the hard-edged sensibility of their past.
A six-minute-long jam session swelling with surf rock melodies, “The Other Girls” is a drastic variation of structure for the band that typically works within the confines of two-minute sprints.
It’s a marathon, which the Girls eventually finish, but at a leisurely pace.
What follows are two sugary-sweet ditties that seem to act as placeholders. Yes, Vivian Girls certainly share the joy on their latest effort, but it’s nowhere near as infectious as their angst.
“I Heard You Say” is a ’60s girl group throwback that rings true, if a bit flat, while the fluffy “Dance (If You Wanna)” bears a weightless melody and cotton-candy vocals that are even emptier than the band’s single-word track, “No,” off its self-titled debut.
“Lake House” falls the closest to the darker days of Everything Goes Wrong with its shady guitars and pummeling drums that charge like a racehorse unwilling to end the race, even when reaching the finish line.
The race continues on in “Trying to Pretend,” a scorned lover’s elegy set to a rapid-fire speed that shows the Girls’ peak form.
It’s that sense of urgency that made Vivian Girls first two full-lengths truly compelling, and Share the Joy’s lack of immediacy causes it to drift off course.
There’s a wavering conviction at work here, one that turns up for the aforementioned “Lake House” and the penultimate “Death,” a morbid girl-group track that’s as sunnily goth as Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, but unfortunately softens for the majority of the album.
Share the Joy does end on a high note — another six-minute long track to bookend the lengthy opener. Like “The Other Girls,” “Light in Your Eyes” is tinged with spiraling psychedelic riffs, yet there’s more of a push and pull between the instruments.
The competition is back, the race unwilling to end as the track careens into a steady grunge-rock jam with flashes of slide guitar and finishes abruptly with a guitar-and-drum blitzkrieg reminiscent of Everything Goes Wrong’s “Out for the Sun.”
It would be nearly unlistenable if Vivian Girls did not have such a fine way of creating elegance through their well-crafted dissonance.
By the album’s end, Vivian Girls solidified they will always be in a league of their own — if only they could have recognized that from the start.