In Praise of the Hype Machine (2008)

What�s thrilling, and irritating, about NYC�s music scene, By Rob Harvilla

Consider the plight of the local-music enthusiast in a small or even decent-sized American citytotally at random, lets say Columbus, Ohio. Fairly sizable, fairly robust, biggest university in the country, etc. (Although the Buckeyes cant beat anybody outside the Big Ten, alas.) Myriad fledgling bands to absorb there, staffed by jovially skuzzy dudes guzzling PBR (unironically) and lousing up myriad seedy bars boasting not-inconsequential sound systems.

Lovely town, lovely scene. And while I could regale you with the sonic majesties of the Jive Turkeys, Scott Gorsuch, or A Planet for Texas, you dont care, because you aint never heard of em, and likely never will. This dilemma is both charming and deeply unsatisfying: Those Friday-night hoedowns, sold-out and raucous though they might be, are yours and yours alone to enjoy, because youre drifting in a small pondmore of an above-ground pool, reallythat few fish (Times New Viking and O.A.R., the latter only technically) will ever escape, if they even try. Most bandseven those with actual records and fans and local radio play and whatnotseem resigned to (or find far more preferable) mere local fame, with no big tours, no Internet-ether buzz, no Making It Big.

Which is, of course, in some ways, preferable to the insanity, the vapidity, the fickle schizophrenia of the hype machine, a deranged monolith that can declare the Black Kids sex on toast one week and an affront to all mankind the next. But this nonetheless underscores what I love about New York City: that both poles exist, that reactions born of both euphoria and revulsion are possible, that a newborn, baby-fawn-delicate band, legs unsteady, eyes still glossy and uncomprehending, can rise from the tiniest, cruddiest basement show to national prominence. (TV on the Radio now stand as our brightest export in this regard.) In short, you pick up a newspapers best-of issue in another town to see what is singularly, idiosyncratically theirs, exclusive to that locale and unattainable elsewhere. But whats considered the best of New York City could very conceivably soon be the best of everywhere. And you might watch it unfold in real-timecatch a bright, young garage-pop band nearly (but not quite) filling the Cake Shop, the Lower East Sides tiny walk-in-closet of a proving ground, and then just a few weeks later behold that same band onstage at the massive, majestic McCarren Park Pool, opening for all-time underground-rock royalty Sonic Youth. Or, in the case of the Vivian Girls, you might see that same thing happen in reverse.

Yes, the Vivian Girls are my current favorite NYC band, proudly joining a distinguished and ever-morphing pantheon that had previously welcomed Oakley Hall, Antibalas, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Dirty on Purpose, Aa, Oneida, the Budos Band, Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, MGMT (just the one song, but still), and famed sex-on-toast/affront-to-all-mankind polarizers Vampire Weekend.

The Vivians, a cheerful Brooklyn trio, specialize in bright, upbeat, simple, profoundly appealing sing-alongs with hints of both surf and turf, lovingly drenched in fuzz and reverb, the sort of basement-tapes muffled approach beloved of Magnet subscribers and Velvet Underground completists. Basically, imagine sitting in a fourth-floor apartment and straining to hear the band practicing in the basementdespite the distance, it sounds pretty great, actually, the basslines steady and melodic, the rare guitar solos simple and uncluttered and conversational, the drums unobtrusive. (At the Cake Shop, as their regular drummer had missed a flight or something, the Vivians just got their roommate to sit in, and if they hadnt sheepishly mentioned thisespecially given that the sightlines there are basically nonexistentits likely no one wouldve noticed.) Their voices, often raised in unison, arent showy or pushy at all, just flat and direct and cast up into the swell of all that reverb. You dont make a paper airplane to impress people with its intricate craftsmanship, but to ensure its simple and steady enough to ride the wind as elegantly as possible.

Or, to put it another way, they have a song called No, clocking in at a sprightly 1:20, that consists of them singing no over and over and over, in sweet, spiraling, overlapping harmony. It is, paradoxically, quite life-affirming.

Its tempting with twee-leaning bands such as this to toss around backhanded compliments like naive or childlike or unaffected, but thats selling the Vivians (and most bands of this ilk) shortthey clearly recognize the blunt power of such a shy approach. This is a style, and a lifestyle: At both shows, they sold seven-inches and cassette tapes, which is economically sound and at the same time expertly designed to snare the music-as-a-fetish-object crowd. (The bands self-titled debut LP, featuring No and nine other songs, most ducking in under two minutes, was just re-released by In the Red.) And yes, I saw them first at the sold-out, super-huge McCarren Park Pool show, and a few weeks later at the Cake Shop. A counterintuitive path, perhaps, but this is just another New York idiosyncrasythe vast range of available shows, from epic quasi-arena blowouts to barely publicized abandoned-warehouse shenanigans, promoters Todd P. and Bowery Presents traversing vastly different universes but holding equal sway, and young bands floating blithely between.

And best of all, as this is most assuredly not an above-ground pool were all swimming in, the Vivian Girls are now whipping about in that infernal hype machine, with tour dates set well into December, and most of those abroad. Even the hilarious and infuriating aspects of highly public attention are mesmerizinglike the hapless horndogs who fling out inane comments at the otherwise excellent, crawling all over themselves to post Id hit it! whenever a picture of an attractive woman is dangled in front of them like a steak or a copy of Vice. Its a circus, and not always an appealing one, but it sure is fascinating, and gratifying, too, when some random band youve seen at some hole in the wall somewhere resonates outside our little bubble.

The Cake Shops sightlines are so bad, in fact, that the club has installed an old black-and-white TV above the bar hooked to a camera trained on the stage, creating the profoundly odd sensation of 50 or so folks mashed into a small space, turned 90 degrees from the actual action and watching a televised feed of a band that happens to be playing live maybe 20 feet in front of us. As if were already admiring them from afar.


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