Vivian Girls’ moderate success was the subject of much disgruntled hollering in various pockets of the rock underground. That derision was undeserved. The band’s two full-lengths and various singles were quite good, a solid blend of Husker Du-inspired pop noise and domestic shoegaze, a la Black Tambourine. The group’s sound was understandably appealing and found its natural audience very quickly. To object to the speed at which it occurred seems equally odd, as Vivian Girls’ rise is a common one in a music industry increasingly built around near instantaneous access to product. With the typical career trajectory of an aspiring band having accelerated from years of work and toil to a matter of months, Vivian Girls are looking like veterans after less than five years together.
It’s natural then that the band would start churning out side-projects, such as Cassie Ramone’s The Babies. Once the refuge of frustrated musical foils, overlooked sidemen or band mates sick to death of one another after decades on the road, they’re now de rigueur, particularly in the underground. And smaller, more intimate music scenes like the one from which Ramone and her partner-in-crime Kevin Morby of Woods emerged seem to especially thrive on collaboration — whether it’s the result of a strong work ethic, a new music industry paradigm, or simply having too much time on one’s hands. It’s arguable that this frequent reconfiguration of bands is indulgent and hinders a single group from every really achieving the level of focus required to be something special, but I think Woods’ steady output and the impending release of a third Vivian Girls LP throws some cold water on that theory. Ultimately, though, as long as it isn’t garbage, which The Babies’ debut most certainly isn’t, there should be no reason for anyone to complain.
The Babies’ debut, released on the long-running Shrimper label, speaks well of collaboration. The album succeeds by touching on the hallmarks of both bands’ sounds, while standing strong on its own thanks to some unexpected touches of true rock ‘n’ roll grit. While Morby is reported to be the primary songwriter (unlike in Woods), tracks such as “Run Me Over” and “Sunset” nicely split the difference between Woods’ more meandering lo-fi folk-pop tendencies and Vivian Girls’ wall-of-sound, punk-driven delivery. Though Ramone tends to function as a Neko Case to Morby’s A.C. Newman, vocal duties remain evenly divided, with Ramone’s voice standing out via her charmingly nasal delivery and requisite layer of reverb. Though neither Woods nor Vivian Girls would be described as over-produced, there’s something particularly raw about The Babies that distinguishes them. There’s a ragged, almost spent quality beneath the hooks and melodies that speaks to the casual nature of this project. “Breakin’ the Law,” an endearing tale of outlaw love gone sour, is the album’s most memorable song in this respect. An undeniable, bittersweet anthem that calls to mind a twee Dead Moon, it deserves to be a hit in an alternate universe.
And perhaps it’s that amiable lack of focus, and ramshackle approach often inherent to a side project that allows for a little gem like “Breakin’ the Law” to exist at all. We can be thankful for that at least.