The members of Vivian Girls are nothing if not productive. Their first two records as a band were released within one year of each other in 2008 and 2009, but they didn’t put out anything new in 2010, unless you count the All Saints Day side project of “Kickball Katy” Goodman (paired with Gregg Foreman of Cat Power’s backing band), as they released an EP last year. But if you think that indicates maybe they’re not actually so productive, you haven’t glanced at what they have set for 2011. Cassie Ramone has already put out an album with her friend Kevin Morby of Woods under the name The Babies. She’ll additionally have a full solo record out later this year too. Goodman has her own solo side project (with backing band) under the name La Sera, and that self-titled debut album is out this week. Not only that, but next month the third Vivian Girls album, “Share the Joy” will be released. Four records in one year from the two principal members of Vivian Girls? Apparently most of that “down” time in 2010 was spent in the studio. As such, you can call Cassie and Katy any number of things, but lazy is not one of them. Tackling these projects one by one as they’re released (you can read a review of The Babies’ self-titled album here), let’s talk La Sera.
Vivian Girls’ sound for their first two records at least was pretty well affixed with the lo-fi label, given their penchant for fuzzed out guitars and very poor recording quality. There was a ramshackle punk ethos about it though, DIY in the best sort of way, with hooks sometimes sharp enough to cut you amidst all the disarray. Cassie Ramone is the primary singer and songwriter for Vivian Girls, though Goodman is never far behind in terms of adding vocal harmonies or even taking the lead herself on occasion. With La Sera she’s front and center where the spotlight is firmly affixed on her vocals and words and the way these songs on the self-titled debut are put together. The sound is generally much sparser and smoother than Vivian Girls, in that there’s less in the way of noisy electric guitars and other loud bits to put more emphasis on Goodman’s singing. On the slow-paced opening track “Beating Heart”, a very cleanly picked single guitar pairs up with Goodman’s voice and some serenely gorgeous backing harmonies. There’s a very lush and fragile feel to the track, and a louder, rustic-sounding electric guitar that emerges in the final minute of the song provides a nice assist in antiquating things just right. First single “Never Come Around” is much more fuller-sounding and classic-sounding effort, providing some echoes of some female-fronted pop from the 60s. At a mere 2 minutes long, it does a whole lot of damange for such a brief period of time. Not only does the hook come at you rapid-fire style, but the interweaving vocal harmony that emerges in the final 40 seconds succeeds at taking the track to the next level where it needs to be to firmly implant itself in your memory. The way “You’re Going to Cry” begins with a sweetly strummed acoustic guitar and a lightly punched snare/cymbal combination projects folk ideals at first before complicating things with double-tracked vocals and harmonies along with a smattering of electric guitar for good measure. For such a lyrically dark song, the rather upbeat mid-tempo melody is deceptive and just a little bit fun, much like the odd sense of wonderment in Goodman’s singing.
A track like “Sleeptalking” verges on surf rock, a bit jangly and relaxed but also without a whole lot of substance. It may clock in at under 2 minutes, but there are two verses, a bridge and a chorus that strikes at least 3 times all packed into an arrangement that isn’t particularly built to handle it. There’s too much trying to be accomplished and as a result things get overly simplified to the point where the song ends up being less effective than was hoped. “I Promise You” is very much a throwback girl group pop song, all lovelorn and infused with strong harmonies. An organ shows up near the end of the track and strongly aids in providing some additional warmth. You kind of get the impression that were things sped up significantly and washed over in layers of distortion that it’d make for a wonderful Vivian Girls track. Goodman’s alternately slower and sparser approach brings out much more of the emotion and that turns out to be a good thing. Despite the bright acoustic guitars and handclaps, “Left This World” doesn’t feel quite like a fully developed song for two reasons. First, Goodman’s vocal is surprisingly weak in this case, almost demo-like at moments. Secondly, the melody doesn’t go anywhere. By hitting the same chords over and over again, there’s something just a little unimaginative about it compared to much of what came before it. While “Devils Hearts Grow Gold” could serve to be just a little bit catchier, it does benefit from the double-tracked vocals and the sneaky addition of some steel guitar for just a hint of country twang. “Dove Into Love” retains a little bit of that as it stretches into a dreamier pop, even incorporating what sounds a lot like a flute near the end. It’s kind of funny that “Been Here Before” is exactly how the title describes it, and that’s all that really needs to be said. And “Lift Off” is a lighter, pretty delightful close to the album, but is problematic in its barely over a minute runtime. The song feels aborted shortly before it reaches full term. Give it another 30 seconds and a run through of the chorus and it could have been great instead of just pretty good.
What La Sera really proves, more than anything else, is that “Kickball Katy” Goodman is in fact more talented than she’s shown us previously. It’s less a case of us thinking she’s not talented and more a case of being a consistent second fiddle to her Vivian Girls cohort Cassie Ramone. By turning in a product that is 100% fully her, we’re now able to better grasp the scope of what she has to offer. Turns out, La Sera’s self-titled debut is pretty damn good. It’s no Vivian Girls, but it’ll do. There’s plenty of potential that’s only lightly explored here, and that leaves plenty of room to grow for the future. There are a handful of missteps, to be sure, and hopefully they’re the sort of mistakes you learn from and move on. Though it is a full 12 tracks, none of the songs make it to the 3 minute mark, and the entire thing clocks in at around 26 minutes. There’s no official cut-off point for going too short on an album, but you do want to make it seem more substantial than just your average EP. After all, Sufjan Stevens put out an EP last year that was over twice the length of this La Sera record. The positive and negative coming from such brevity is that whether you’re on a good song or a bad one, you know it’ll be over quickly. Such a fun little jaunt is something you don’t have to take too seriously and it lends itself to a healthy repeat value. If you’re going to keep putting out music as short as this though, the goal should be “all killer, no filler”.