The Vivian Girls can all trade instruments in mid-song (mid-beat, really), and it has no audible effect on the song whatsoever. The playing itself neither improves nor deteriorates: The thumping bass is still blunt and melodic, the drums still cheerfully plodding, the guitar still a vaguely sugary wash of distorted surliness, all topped with cooing flat-affect vocals (heavy on oooooh‘s, iiiiiiiiii‘s, ahhhhh‘s) and smothered in underground-missile-silo depths of soothing reverb. Same difference. Whether this makes them lousy musicians or sneaky virtuosos is a matter of some debate, and debate we shall: Such ploys perfectly encapsulate the Brooklyn-via–New Jersey pop-punk trio’s freakish ability to hopelessly charm some and relentlessly antagonize others. They invoke an immediate sensation of either falling in love or falling-in-love-to-hate.
And so, onstage late last Tuesday night at sweltering Williamsburg spot Death by Audio, during a droning, raucous, ecstatic encore—stage-divers, tentative moshers, a lone empty 40-ounce beer bottle held aloft triumphantly in the midst of the sardine-packed crowd—singer-guitarist Cassie Ramone, who dropped her axe on the ground and has been whacking it with a tambourine for the past several minutes, saunters over to bassist Kickball Katy and takes over, the throbbing one-note pulse only momentarily broken in the transition, after which Katy wanders over to drummer Ali Koehler and politely grabs her sticks, one at a time (for a few seconds, they’ve got one stick apiece, bashing away in expert succession), whereupon Ali takes up Cassie’s guitar and reintroduces the gently shrieking sugary drone. Democracy. The song continues, oblivious. If you had your eyes closed or were dealing with an oversize-dude-obstructed view or something, this personnel change might’ve completely escaped your attention, too. They’re just that good (or bad).
As a bonus exercise, try and tell the difference between the Vivians’ two records. First came last year’s brusque, breezy self-titled debut, best exemplified by the 1:20 “No,” wherein Cassie moans the titular sentiment 30 to 35 times, does a brief rudimentary guitar solo, then moans “No” another 20 to 25 times, as her bandmates bash along and harmonize in the life-affirmingly negative. Songs rarely last longer than two minutes and don’t particularly benefit when they do; the whole thing barely fills up a third of an hour, a slurry, smeary soup of melted-ice-cream pop hooks gleefully burped out at random. Try to avoid falling in love with “Wild Eyes” while it’s playing, and try to remember anything about it afterward beyond picturing a messy glop of garage-rock propulsion and guilelessly howled litanies of random vowels.
The first several spins through Everything Goes Wrong, out next week, it feels like comparing tap water to bottled water: It’s primarily a question of marketing. Their rudimentary lo-fi stomp has gotten only slightly bigger, slightly tighter, slightly less arbitrary, slightly more angst-ridden. (Breakup record ahoy: Song titles include “Can’t Get Over You,” “The End,” and “Before I Start to Cry.”) But you notice, nonetheless, when a song like “When I’m Gone” kicks into a gear the band didn’t have before, the chorus blooming into a simple but anthemic two-chord mini-fugue, the harmonies on the words “I’m gone” blossoming into something just a bit sharper and stickier. But similarities abound: playfully bounding basslines as befits someone named “Kickball Katy” (live, she sways to and fro with a smiley, beatific aura, like a second-grade teacher serenading her students) and more brief, rudimentary guitar solos from Cassie, three- or four-note monuments to stabbing minimalism that grate on record and work much better live, drowned tonight amid Death by Audio’s general clamor and emerging only as ghostly, half-heard echoes.
Like its predecessor, Wrong also boasts a quiet confidence, listing into brashness, that has always rankled the love-to-hate crowd. The “Be My Baby” beat that kicks off “Tension” (“I feel ten-sion!” Cassie caterwauls repeatedly, emotionally in tune, if not musically) feels like a deliberate bit of sass and sacrilege. Public objection to the Vivian Girls often takes a stranger form, though: Late last year, they caused a big hullabaloo with a series of pithy online video interviews, including one in which they piled (clothed) into an (empty) bathtub and bubbled on about the horrible, suburban, non-punk-rock lives of “normal people” who “go to the bar after work with their co-workers.” Some normal folks were appalled, decrying the Girls as quasi-hipster cultural elitists or (much) worse, and ultimately forcing the band to publicly apologize: “We were being really sarcastic in those videos . . . the phrase ‘normal people’ is just ridiculous. We love Applebee’s.”
What a relief to have that all cleared up. If sheltered, slightly oblivious twentysomething indie-rock micro-stars get your eyes rolling, fair enough, but overanalyzing the Vivian Girls seems pointless somehow. They offer very simple pleasures, bordering on simplistic, but with a single-mindedness that’s starting to accrue real weight and emotional resonance. At Death by Audio, they hit a fantastic and unexpected stride with two new tracks, “The End” and “Out for the Sun,” that hit harder and stick around for longer than even fans would have any right to expect, transcending the disposable frivolity that made the band pretty good for a brief, intense, disarmingly ferocious glimpse of something great. Make that stick, and you can swap instruments all you want.