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The Trials of Growing Up Jangly: Vivian Girls, Crystal Stilts, and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart

Shades of jangle: Crystal Stilts, Vivian Girls, and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (l-r).

Sometime in the past few years, you may have read an article about a cluster of ramshackle, guitar-strumming, indie-pop bands in Brooklyn. Or in San Francisco, or London — they are everywhere. Jangly sixties pop goes down into a dirty basement, and gets swamped in reverb, melancholy, and wooly DIY recording: This has always been a cozy nook for indie bands, with so many subtle variations on the style that you can currently pick your favorites the way you'd pick paint colors. Eggshell jangle or off-white jangle?

Most of these bands have brief shelf lives: People listen to their first LPs and pretty much get the point. They do not expect to follow these bands on decade-long paths to their masterpiece seventh albums. This isn't sad or superficial; it's just the way things go among scrappy DIY bands and people who listen to a lot of records every month. But it makes it pretty fascinating to watch how these acts go about making second albums, or third ones, and launching them off toward listeners who might consider the whole thing the sound of two summers ago — or may have moved on from the seafoam jangle to the frosty-mint variety, just for a change of pace.

This month, three such bands from Brooklyn — the fresh faces of 2008 — have new albums. And each of them strikes me as a funny example of how to be profitably stubborn about the question of shelf life.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, for instance, always stood apart from their Brooklyn peers, mostly because they weren't particularly cool. That's not an insult: The whole appeal of the band was its commitment to heart-on-sleeve adolescent romance and joyously wimpy old twee records. (You don't call your band "the Pains of Being Pure at Heart" if you're trying to seem surly or guarded.) They waved that flag with such total, guileless candor that you had to respect it. And on their second album, Belong, they've doubled down: Suddenly there's a streak of shiny nineties alt-rock winding through their songs — all produced by the same guy who used to produce Smashing Pumpkins' albums. At the moment, glossy nineties alt-rock ambition is every bit as vexed and potentially embarrassing as doe-eyed innocence — but it serves, for this band, as another great way of summoning up the sparkly teenage dreams they're interested in. It is a weird, small way of going for broke.

Crystal Stilts are shadier — they play spindly music while a diffident, low-voiced singer moans through large amounts of reverb. It's pop, but it tends to sound swampy, psychedelic, and sinister. The band's muzzy sound is so specific, in fact, that it's unlikely many people will even notice how much better and more interesting they've gotten on their second album, In Love With Oblivion. But the songs here range from dark, druggy crawls to bright bursts of melody, and they're a lot more coherent than in the past — it's as if the band's becoming a high-quality boutique product for anyone dedicated enough to follow along.

The development that really grabs me, though, comes from Vivian Girls — the least-confident-sounding of the bunch, and the one act that gets enough attention paid to them to provoke backlash. (They are, after all, young women who seem to be enjoying themselves, so the attention tends to involve photographs, followed by hints of the usual, terrible reaction to the idea of young women enjoying anything.) Their sound — flat girl-group harmonizing over fast and rickety music — was quickly surrounded by similar groups, usually with more polish and poise. (See: Dum Dum Girls, Best Coast.) The rampaging, desperate-sounding songs on their second album, Everything Goes Wrong, seemed to slip under the radar. Hipster Runoff enjoys making jokes about them.

This is a shame, because Vivian Girls remains a delightfully strange band. Almost creepily strange. On their third record, Share the Joy, it seems as if they're trying to be more sophisticated, which does not exactly play to their strengths. Singer Cassie Ramone is clumsy and halting when she plays lead guitar, and yet the first track here features an extended guitar solo. This band does not seem to care about "bad ideas"; they are gloriously and deliriously immune to the whole concept. One track on this album, "Take It As It Comes," actually tries on that old girl-group staple where a song begins with the members having a spoken conversation about matters of the heart ("What if he winds up with another girl?") — it's such a damn-the-torpedoes approach to potential mockery that I can't help being on its side. And somewhere within all the shambling, vulnerable performances, Ramone really does remain great at writing cloudy, sophisticated, desperate melodies, in ways the band's more confident peers rarely manage. I don't know if that's a matter of "stubbornness" or not, but it's far more lovable and compelling than this record would be if Vivian Girls sounded like they always knew exactly what they were doing.

Photo: Betsy Blundell (Stilts, Pains), Roger Kisby/Getty Images (Vivian Girls)