The initial spark that brought The Vivian Girls success—if you can mentally cycle back past three or four subsequent backlashes against the low stakes of modern lo-fi to remember—was the Brooklyn band's ability to wring sweetness and wobbly melody from cruddy component parts. Which is why 2009's downcast Everything Goes Wrong was a step in the wrong direction. Instead of further developing the yearning pop melody of tracks like "Where Do You Run To," their sophomore record waded deeper into punk muck, dirging-up basics on short songs that seemed much longer. With their vintage pop pastiche drabbed-down even a little, there just weren't enough memorable tunes to go around. Though a third album is expected later this year, the girls have had some time off to toy around with side projects.
La Sera (Hardly Art) is the self-titled solo debut of Vivian Girls' bassist "Kickball Katy" Goodman, owner of the higher, sweeter voice that's previously been cast in a supporting role. On her own, Goodman fulfills a bit of deferred promise by laboring more intently on ear-pleasing singing and a brighter overall sound. While her voice is far from unblemished, Goodman scores a series of harmonic near-misses, her warble overlaid in slightly mismatched layers. She can't quite emulate the clean, bygone picket-fence pop she's attempting, but the record is more interesting for its imperfection (in a post-punk sort of way). Album opener "Beating Heart" is slower than you'd expect from a nouveau punk, more lush than a real DIY diehard could stomach. On tracks like "Been Here Before," the vocal mix is the sort shoegaze bands bury under walls of guitar distortion, but it's upfront here without much in the way of accompanying white noise. Sluggish guitar playing is a problem throughout, exposing the limits of vocal development alone. As the record progresses and the ideas run thin, only short peppy bursts like "Lift Off" pay off. By the finish, swooniness cedes to samey-ness.
Though the self-titled debut record from Brooklyn-scene composite The Babies, released on Shrimper Records, features prominent vocals from Vivian Girls front-woman Cassie Ramone, the creative input of her former roommate, Woods' bassist Kevin Morby, complicates its status as mere side-project. Ramone's voice is far more limited than Goodman's, a ceiling set at gawky Moe Tucker charm. Times when she's singing in isolation are a little painful, honestly. In duet with Morby, a more interesting dynamic occurs—Royal Trux gone polite. "Breakin' the Law" (not a cover of the Beavis and Butthead fave, alas) has an overly familiar outlaws-in-love motif that's well executed nonetheless. "Caroline" ends the record with momentum, its taut and playful guitar a fitting soundtrack to some boys' camp adventure story, swelling with fluttering female tones when the lads reach the promised land. Before that strong finish, proto-punk thrash, bar-room rock, and hazy cowboy songs are cycled through with moderate brio. It's terminally modest, though, even when it works. But hope continues to spring eternal, for the Vivian Girls and their lo-fi borough-mates alike, that one of these days this continual reshuffling of used-up influences might somehow result in something novel.