Cassie Ramone doesn’t want to be like the other girls. In fact, she says so right on the first song of Share the Joy, Vivian Girls’ latest album. To most of us though, Ramone and her band sound a heck of a lot like other girls, particularly Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast and Kristin “Dee Dee Penny” Gundred of Dum Dum Girls. They’re all looking for that sweet spot between Sonic Youth and the Ronettes, and while the Vivs came first, they have thus far had the toughest time finding it. But I suppose this is why capitalists say competition is a good thing.
For their third album, Vivian Girls moved to the Polyvinyl label and took advantage of the production services of Woods’ Jarvis Taveniere. Whether it’s a desire to keep pace with their direct competition in the Jesus and Mary Chain-inflected-girl-group market, the influence of Taveniere or simply the patience that comes as we age, on Share the Joy, Vivian Girls allow their songs to breathe, no longer fear the four-minute mark, and shake off some lo-fi cobwebs, in the process making their strongest album yet.
It’s never a sin to be rough around the edges in rock music, and the garage band edge Vivian Girls brought to their previous albums was clearly on purpose. But in dusting every song in fuzz and dissonance, they all began to run together. On Share the Joy, the songs’ individuality becomes more apparent. “Dance (If You Wanna),” with its sock-hop beat and harmonies that teeter at the top of the Girls’ collective voice range, the song worms its way into your ear with its exuberance. It’s like a jumpy puppy that you just can’t stay mad at. That song is followed by “Lake House,” which has a similar beat and would likely have bled right in from its predecessor on other Vivian Girls albums. But here, you can pick up the distinct change into a minor key since just enough of the grime coating is cleared away.
The harmonies in particular are more developed on Share the Joy. Ramone’s flat voice still veers from charmingly everywoman to gratingly off key, sometimes in the same verse, but when the girls back her up on songs like “I Heard You Say,” she almost sounds like a proper singer. She’ll never be Diana Ross, but when she croons, “He’ll never hold me in his arms again / No he’ll never hold me in his arms again / I’m so cold,” somehow it’s more affecting coming from someone who sounds like the girl you sat next to in Algebra II.
“Sixteen Ways” sounds like something off one of the Kill Bill soundtracks, with its galloping beats, reverb and declaration that, “They shot my baby but they killed my faith.” Ramone gets in a pretty bitchin’ guitar solo as well. “Take It As It Comes” is a fun girl group homage, complete with spoken word interludes where the Girls give each other advice on what to do – and not to do – when Johnny won’t call. (Showing up at his house unannounced is soundly advised against).
With two songs cracking the six-minute barrier, Vivian Girls allow themselves some noodling on Share the Joy that doesn’t exactly go anywhere, but isn’t abrasively self indulgent either. Sometimes on their first two albums, the band’s songs were so short that it almost seemed like they wanted to get them over with. They were quick bursts of noisy hooks that were practically over as soon as you noticed them. The songs on Share the Joy are all more or less in the same vein as on previous efforts, but they stick around awhile. On “Death,” Ramone keeps repeating “I wanna, wanna, wanna, wanna, wanna, wanna, wanna stay alive.” It’s nice that this time around, her songs get that opportunity.