Chick Factor

SF indie-pop quartet Vervein prospers despite chump-ass rock crit chauvinism.

Yeah, you know, we just hang around in our lingerie and have pillow fights,” chuckles Jess Congdon, frontwoman of the San Francisco quartet Vervein. “Isn’t that what four girls in a band are supposed to do?”

It’s a good thing the singer/songwriter/guitarist can poke fun at the stereotypes and assumptions that go along with the dreaded all-female band, because there’s no getting away from them in this Maxim-ized world of ours. Not even on Vervein’s own Web site.

Like most unsigned, up-and-coming bands, Vervein has posted nearly all of the press reviews for its recent self-released debut album, Vast Low Cities. And so you can discover this little nugget from one scribe: “The most surprising thing about this record, for me, is not its quality, but that it has impressed a guy like me as much as it has. Now I’ve got nothing against confessional female indie-pop; [it] has its place and purpose, but it’s never really been a strong area of interest for me.”

Sure, the dude probably means well, but implicit in his writing is that old derisive notion Vervein has dealt with time and time again, one that’s plagued nearly every woman who’s dared to strap on a guitar or bass, or sit behind a drum kit: “This stuff isn’t bad … for a bunch of chicks.”

Congdon can only laugh at such ignorance. “I think it’s more funny than anything, the people who put those kind of disclaimers on it,” she says. “Whatever. It’s hard to believe people still have hang-ups about whether it’s girls or guys, but I know they do. Oh, well — if they’re only gonna judge our music on the fact that girls made it, it’s their loss.”

Okay, okay, sometimes it bothers her. “I think the only time genuine frustration comes into the whole thing is when there’s this expectation for a girl group to rely so heavily on their image, which is unfortunate,” Congdon continues. “It does concern me, some of the comments we’ve gotten about trying to get our picture in more places, things like that. I guess in some ways there’s really nothing you can do about it, but we’re confident since there’ve been other bands in the past that have been able to pretty much sidestep the issue, like the Breeders. And people here in the Bay Area are pretty gender-blind, I would say. I don’t know what we’ll have to deal with in the future, but hopefully the music will always speak for itself.”

For the most part, Vervein’s Vast Low Cities speaks rather softly but carries a big stick-in-your-head combination of plaintive melodies, eddying atmospherics, introspective (yet not eye-rolling) lyrics, and structures that dodge the usual tenets of indie-guitar rock. The spare, quiet, sometimes somber moments — usually formed by cleanly picked chords, dusky cello, breathy vocal harmonies, and the most reticent of bass and percussion — are like momentarily losing your bearings in a thick blanket of fog: It’s aesthetically quite lovely and serene, yet there’s an underlying sense of trepidation as well.

The foursome can rock out too, sorta — when Vervein stomps on the pedals on tracks like the standout “Station,” it’s more of a shoegazer blur than a fuzz-bomb detonation, though the latter may occur when the band plays live. It’s not hard to imagine any of these fourteen songs slotting nicely into a college radio DJ’s dreamy overnight set, right next to Galaxie 500, Throwing Muses, Lush, Red Stars Theory and, yeah, some early Breeders, too.

Certainly the disc sounds as poised and chemistry-laden as a band that’s been playing together for a decade, not one that’s only been around since late 2000 and endured a lineup change a year into its existence. Transplanted Washington, DC, native Congdon met guitarist and cellist Esther Reyes in San Francisco and sparked Vervein’s formation; the pair subsequently poached the rhythm section — drummer Allison Duke and bassist Audra Kunkle — from the local band Shackleton to round out the lineup. When Kunkle left in 2001, a friend of Congdon’s suggested the group audition singer-bassist Rachel Fuller.

“She just walked in the door and we were like, ‘Okay, she’s the one,'” Congdon recalls. “Everything was just there, her personality, her musical sense, all of it. We were playing and the whole thing just clicked pretty immediately. I’ve been in bands where I loved hanging out with everybody but it wasn’t like we got much done, and I’ve been in the other situation where you show up and play and you don’t have any personal connection. But this is the best of both worlds. These women are my friends, I love them all, and it just so happens that they’re incredibly talented as well, and we all have the same kinds of sounds going through our minds.”

Such unity of artistry has borne much fruit in a relatively short period of time. Congdon says the bandmembers have already written most of the follow-up to Vast Low Cities; she thinks the new material — some of which they’ll unveil at the Hemlock Tavern on Friday — shows off even more of their uncanny communion.

“I do have to say that the writing is actually the easiest and least competitive and tension-filled than any other band I’ve ever been in,” Congdon continues. “We’re just all incredibly polite! If we don’t like something we will say it, but it’s very rare we get into arguments about how things go.”

Congdon pauses for a moment, then begins to laugh. “See — we’re not just a bunch of girls that are all moody all the time!”

Yep, another myth dispelled.

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