We all know about the well-worn link between smell and memory. One sniff is apparently all it takes to whisk your mind to some moment from the past. Music can spark a similar experience and, because tunes can be recorded, you get to examine the strange tricks your brain plays on you in ways you can't with a fleeting whiff. Did that cheese really smell like your best friend's sweater from elementary school? Who knows (or cares). But do fresh-faced Brooklyn-based lo-fi power pop trio Vivian Girls really sound like my life circa 1991? Well that's a different matter entirely.
Each time I hear the Vivian Girls I'm hurled back to a very specific time and place: I'm in my tiny dorm room during my first year at university, listening to a scratchy copy of Lush's debut EP Scar on 12-inch vinyl. It's not just that they remind me of that particular record or period of my life; it's more than that. They transport me. When I hear them, I'm there in a flash.
But here's the weird part: the Vivian Girls don't even sound all that much like the Lush record I just mentioned. I know this because I checked. The first thing I did after hearing their self-titled debut last year was go and dig out that same scratchy copy of Scar. It sounded totally different from how I had remembered it. Sure, there were plenty similarities between the two bands: the slightly atonal shouted vocals buried low in the mix, the distorted guitars, the rumbling, melodic bass. But the Lush record was by turns much harsher and more wispy than I had expected, and certainly nowhere near as close as I had thought to the Vivian Girls' sound. And then it got even stranger: discovering this made no difference. Even now, hearing the Vivian Girls takes me on the same journey to that record, place, and time. Their new album Everything Goes Wrong does it too. Why?
Well, because memories become distorted over time. Somewhere in my head I've confused and combined a bunch of songs, emotions, and ideas into a hybrid memory for that part of my life. And it's this sound that the Vivian Girls are tapping into. Listening to their latest release, I started hearing loads of other bands and sounds I associate with that time too. "Double Vision" nails Nirvana's slacker angst-rock. "Tension" has the shoegazing vocals of early Ride. And the off-kilter girl-on-girl harmonies that feature throughout could easily have been lifted from any number of C86-style bands, like Talulah Gosh, the Shop Assistants, or even thePastels. It's as if the Vivian Girls have found my cache of old compilation cassettes and turned them into pure punk-pop gold.
Which isn't to say that they sound like dated throwbacks, because they don't at all. If they weren't so young and full of spunky attitude and originality then the whole thing probably wouldn't work like it does; it would seem too dated and stale. It's just that somehow they've chanced upon a formula that (to my ears) sounds like pure, distilled, wonderful 1991.
Everything Goes Wrong by Vivian Girls is released September 8, 2009 on In the Red records. The album release party is at the Rickshaw Stop on September 9 and the band will play an acoustic set at Amoeba on September 10. For more information and tickets, go to rickshawstop.com.