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Back to The Future

Appreciating The Sublime Vacuum Rock of The Vivian Girls and The Crystal Stilts

The Vivian Girls remember (clap) walking in a meadow...

By Mike McGonigal | Posted 8/13/2008

The Vivian Girls, the Crystal Stilts, Mr. Moccasin* and Sexually Retarded.

Nerve Center Aug. 15

Two basic premises of rock music: 1) All rock 'n' roll is based on theft, and 2) it's all been done before. This would appear to make it very difficult to get a band started today, this late in the game. It must be impossible to sound remotely "original" these days. If novelty for its own sake is your main goal, you can certainly arrive at something new. Let's say your band Paris Hilton mixes clickcore laptop electronics with Cookie Monster death-metal vocals, all your songs are done with oompah and ska beats, and a distorted tuba is the main instrument? Well, that's probably not been done yet. The odds are better than good that, musically, your Island of Dr. Moreau sound experiment is going to suck donkeys, but you probably knew that already.

The exciting thing is that within the parameters of existing rock sounds, if you tweak a certain combination just right, it's still quite possible to sound "new," and not simply to the 15-year-old kids who ostensibly have never heard the constituent components in the first place and, hence, don't know any better. Smart people start with sounds that work well together already--perhaps the basic components of Black Sabbath or (if you're still in college) Big Star will appeal. There certainly are worse starting points. The Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts, two Brooklyn, N.Y.-based bands that play Baltimore on the same bill this week--and that until last month shared the same drummer--are among the finest exemplars of this approach. Not that they have anything to do with Sabbath or Big Star; both groups started with a smart theft and tweaked it.

Crystal Stilts and Vivian Girls are two of the most exciting and, yes, wholly original bands around today. Both take feel-good pop sounds from the '60s and '80s and fuck with them, turning them on their head. And while they could be reduced to a musical equation or shopping list, that makes it all the more difficult to get across the ways that they subtly fuck with these elements to arrive at their own approach. (OK, so the Stilts are maybe Monochrome Set Jesus and Mary Chain the most gloomy Flying Nun bands divided by Phil Spector working with only a Tascam cassette recorder. And the Vivian Girls are maybe the Ronettes Shop Assistants divided by Black Tambourine. But, ew--that was geeky.)

Both have some semblance of a wall of sound thing going on and employ stuttery, mid- to uptempo '60s drumming. And both make lyrically and sonically mopey music that's also sexy. In this sense--and only this sense--they're mildly gothy. The Stilts and the Girls have built up their own aesthetic precisely and intensely and thankfully/happily do not deviate from it. If a cover is performed, it's done entirely in their style. This is what Modern Rock Magazine critic Tim Ellison calls "vacuum rock"--it creates its own world entirely, and sucks you in. I myself spent much of the '90s enamored of acts--from Yo La Tengo to Tortoise to Beck--who seemed to free themselves from the strictures of genre, but these days it's the acts who carve out their own space in a genre crevice who seem the most exciting. Of course, any jazzbo or Oulipo freak will tell you that within the most limited strictures one can find the freest freedom.

I don't know about you, but it's been years since I was this excited about new rock-based music. Most of it is noisy pop (the San Francisco-based Sic Alps) or shambling pop punk (Brooklyn's Cause Co-Motion!), but some is also bedroom darkwave (the Blank Dogs, which is one guy, also in Brooklyn) and poppy psychedelic jams (the Bay Area's Wooden Shjips) and arty scuzz punk (Portland, Ore.'s Eat Skull) and even hardcore (White Fang, also from Portland). I keep spending too much money on singles and albums on labels like Skulltones, Woodsist, S-S, and Siltbreeze--and almost all are great. (One of the reasons this music is just now starting to get written up by mainstream-ish rock critics, where bloggers have been all over it the past year or two, is that until very recently you've had to buy these records.)

The typical way these groups release their music is in a super-limited vinyl version that within weeks fetches crazy amounts of money on eBay. This is thankfully starting to change, as the groups migrate from tiny indies to larger ones. The Crystal Stilts have moved from Woodsist to Slumberland, and the Vivian Girls have moved from Mauled by Tigers to In the Red. The quality may not be as high and on the DIY/handmade tip on these newer labels, but at least you'll be able to buy the Vivian Girls' sole album for less than $80 when it's reissued next month.

My obsession with Crystal Stilts began last December. I traveled to New York to see New Zealand's legendary '80s art-pop heroes the Clean play three shows at this little club called Cake Shop. The opening act at the first gig was Crystal Stilts. They were awesome, nonchalantly making this oblique jangle atop the kind of stand-up drum sound the Shop Assistants and Jesus and Mary Chain employed on their early singles. I was introduced to the Vivian Girls via the Stilts bassist J.B. Townsend; the group was started by his girlfriend, Frankie Rose. Earlier this year Rose joined the Stilts as their stand-up drummer. And just last month, when the other members of the Girls asked her to pick one band, she chose Crystal Stilts. So she's no longer in her own band, but I hear there are no hard feelings and the Girls are still bound to be great, just based on the songs Rose wrote for them alone.

Both groups approach the idea of a guitar solo in the same way that Swell Maps or Galaxie 500 did--that little break in the song is a chance to play a nice little singsong melody that's exactly the same, each time. This technique goes back at least to garage rock, to "Little Black Egg" and "Gloria," but it really never gets old, especially when done so well. Both groups share vocal styles that are distant-sounding, and not just because of a liberal use of reverb. They're intentionally "flat" much of the time, an inflection that one might trace back to British postpunk or American folk. In the case of the Stilts, you have cool and detached vocals on top of dreamy downer pop. Stilts singer Brad Hargett croons quite a lot like Derek Hammond of Yeah Yeah Noh--a favorite neglected band from the outskirts of the C86 era of British indie pop. But as with the best jangly pop, the vocals are mixed low, the lyrics unintelligible.

The Vivian Girls excel at these tight, three-part female vocal harmonies that veer from almost menacing ("Tell the World") to bouncy ("Wild Eyes") and gorgeously melancholic ("Where Do You Run To"). "Where Do You Run To" might be the best pop song you'll hear this year. On the midtempo nihilistic manifesto "I Believe in Nothing," the Girls are able to achieve the full emotional force of in-your-face punk just by arranging the vocals this way. The song would be a pretty pop-punk ditty without those detuned voices, and it would be swell like that. It's such a small difference, the addition of these deliberately "off" harmonies, but it is exactly why the group's music is genius. Similarly, the Crystal Stilts load their three-chord ditty "Crippled Croon" up with swoops of synth noise and minor-key vocals without ever damaging the tune's inherent beauty.

These are both totally pop bands. They make these beautiful little things, take them to the edge of not being beautiful, and then stop. And somehow that makes them even prettier. H

*Mr. Moccasin includes City Paper contributor Jared Fischer.

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