Beyond Comparison: Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts
The more things change, goes the old saying, the more they stay the same. Twenty-five years after the Ronettes spoke for lousily lovesick teens everywhere, the Boom Children spiked their Sex Pistol riffs with Phil Spector melodies and proclaimed their post-pubescent angst with distortion pedals. But in pop music, though love may be fickle, youth is eternal. Fanzines may have been replaced by blogs, and college-radio mumblecore by the easily clickable Internet Hype Machine, but beyond online social networking, community is still easy to find on the ground. For a lot of Brooklyn musicians and their fans, that entails trekking out to the practice dens and warehouse performance spaces of Red Hook. Sometimes it takes a group of like-minded bands to make it feel like the good old days, whenever they were.
Mixing old school with new on a warm Saturday afternoon back in July, the romper-and-cutoff-clad—who would benefit from a sun kiss on this breezy day—enjoyed Blue Moons and homemade burritos during a weekly party in Carroll Gardens. The day-long roster featured several noise and pop bands. As tribes moved through the overgrown grass in search of shade, a familiar clang sounded—multiple harmonies and hardened guitar, as if Ronnie Spector had swapped her leather jacket for an anorak. For a few minutes, hunger and shelter were far from our minds. Up on stage, the band looked like the cool, artsy chicks who might’ve followed Bowie to Berlin in 1975, yet still giggly and goofball enough to nickname themselves Cassie Ramone and Kickball Katy.
The Vivian Girls (who have released a couple of records on In the Red, following a limited vinyl release on Mauled by Tigers) add plenty of thoroughly modern flourishes to sixties-pop hallmarks. Downbeat drumming and the stay-at-home longing of “Why Do You Leave Me All Alone?” appear on “Where Do You Run To,” on the band’s self-titled LP released last spring. “Such a Joke,” from the same record, quickly escalates into a reverb-soaked chorale, as Cassie echoes indie-pop heroines the Shop Assistants’ chirpy dismissal, “I Don’t Want to Be Friends with You.” If the Girls chime in a little too sweetly with “I’ll Tell the World About the Love That I Found” (on the single “Tell the World”), the sledgehammer backbeat keeps them grounded. “No,” also from the Vivian Girls LP, is an exhaustive, exhilarating—but hummable—dissertation on negation. Like the romantic punks in Britain’s C86 movement (named for the 1986 cassette compilation produced by the English punk bible New Musical Express) who set their “Dear John” letters to a Wall of Sound, Vivian Girls make breaking up, well, a fun thing to do.
But don’t call it a throwback, says Cassie Ramone. “I feel like we get pegged as C86 ‘revivalists’ all the time, but that’s nowhere near what we were trying to do,” the Williamsburg-based guitarist/vocalist explains via email. “Our general goal was to be a punk/garage band, but with weird love songs and reverb and harmonies.” Ramone is critical of the featherweight “twee” stamp because “there is a side of our songs that is way angrier and darker than those bands were.”
Ramone formed the group with drummer Frankie Rose (who now plays with Crystal Stilts) in March 2007. In need of a bass player, they recruited high school friend Katy. Drummer Ali Kohler (as yet without sobriquet) met Katy at Rutgers, where the former studied German and the latter physics.
“We never even heard the Shop Assistants until we got compared to them a bunch,” Cassie adds. Instead, she lists as influences the short-lived D.C. band Black Tambourine, along with a hardened mix of the Wipers and My Bloody Valentine, and a little Burt Bacharach.
At an 18+ gig in West Village space (Le) Poisson Rouge in September, Tootsie specs replaced the Wayfarers, but not the rompers. Dressed in mom-sewn, folky outfits, Breathe Owl Breathe riffed between songs on recess and Berry Berry Kix. (“16+ would have been more appropriate,” suggests my companion.)
Crystal Stilts know how to have fun, too. With friends in Vivian Girls and lo-fi punk outfit caUSE co-MOTION!, they’ve performed, costumes optional, as Meatus Murder and Freddy and the Jasons. Tonight the autumnal quintet is dressed in geometric lighting and nimble Sister Ray–style fretwork. “Crystal Stilts,” off their debut full-length Alight of Night (Slumberland), is a hip-shaker that, as eponymous themes go, veers away from the bubblegum of “Hey, Hey, We’re the Monkees” and closer to something from Head: a swinger built on tambourine, surf-rock drums, and the chant of “distorted dreams.” From the sight of guitarist JB Townsend wailing like John Cale with his back turned, and vocalist Brad Hargett in mod, Dylan-gone-electric ’fro and shirt buttoned to the top, it’s clear Crystal Stilts are hardly futurist. Instead they’re intimate and romantic in a way that, these days, might seem primitive—especially when bands must compete for attention with cell-phone LCD screens.
Hargett’s vocal style expertly melds public and private. He’s exposed to an audience but, as on record, is practically inaudible—a sound fit for the Tumblr age of aggressive anonymity. “Tell me you love me / When I say goodbye” he chants over the laconic jangle of “Crippled Croon,” like a singing telegram left standing on the porch. Often the voice hangs around long enough to become incidental, just as the Psychedelic Furs’ “If You Leave” scores the entire prom scene in Pretty in Pink. “Graveyard Orbit” plunges somewhere beyond consolation: “I’ll love a girl someday / She’ll nourish me in sympathy / But now I’m shoved through subways / Selling subtleties, it sickens me,” moans the Percy Shelley of the L train. In album-closer “The City in the Sea,” a gently stirring Hargett finds a metropolis in an abyss of reverb and Townsend’s psychedelic wah. “I’m still astonished by this spark of light / Even as these waters writhe,” he says. He’s so reassuring that you’d believe the Emerald City is somewhere in the Gowanus Canal.
One artist finding a home in Hargett’s lyrical “Prismatic Room” is Dan Treacy, of the ’70s post-pop group Television Personalities. Discussing the origins of Crystal Stilts, formed with Hargett in 2003, Townsend remarks by email that he relates to Treacy’s “really bizarrely poppy, dark, and innovative songs with weird, good production.” Stilts bassist Andy Adler, a lover of Jamaican music and the King’s Cross of British punk and reggae, combed through photocopies of Creation Records head Alan McGee’s zines (“back when one had to put some effort into searching for records you’d read about in fanzines!”) to learn about artists like Treacy, the Legend!, and Jasmine Minks.
Flashbacks like this are no new thing. The Brill Building sound still has its worshippers fifty years later; early 80s upstart record labels like Creation, Postcard, and Flying Nun built legacies on their various 60s fetishes. Twenty years later, drummer Hamish Kilgour, of Flying Nun mainstays the Clean, has become a familiar face in the Brooklyn community, playing with singer-songwriter Samara Lubelski.
Eschewing historical comparisons, Cassie Ramone still giddily describes the current climate in Brooklyn and the “rad shows” she and cohorts play together. “What we have here is definitely really special.”
Kate Silver is a Brooklyn-based writer. She breaks out her high school French whenever she can.