Let us quickly get past the eye-rolling tvvee of Alvvays’ name. After the Beatles, the decision to intentionally spell your band’s name in a quirky way has usually been an indicator of sophomoric wit (or worse, a lack of talent). Sometimes it works despite logic, but, after pondering it for a great while, I’m happy to say that Alvvays get away with it because it weirdly makes sense coupled with their sound: the music that they make subtly undercuts their wacky name. While on the surface, their music is carefree and sugary, their beating heart proves to be an incredibly direct, unassuming, and full of a vigor expression often absent in other pop-rock acts. When you dig into the dark core, their name becomes the manifestation to the unearthed trauma. The future, just like the past and present, is fragmented, and we are surrounded by the broken pieces. Always.
That might be a more in depth analysis of a moniker than usual, but when dealing within a hip genre that is surging at the moment, it’s vital to consider all angles. So what of the actual music beyond the clever name? It’s undeniably quite solid. The band writes summer-vibed pop rock with an assured hand firmly gripping a litany of past giants—the Smiths, the Byrds, the Go-Go’s, to name a few. But when you consider some of the band’s lyrical content, their songs take a turn from breezy to brooding.
Alvvays are not alone in the freewheelin’, hang-loose, female-fronted garage band wave, but they do come across as one of the most assured acts. That’s mostly due to singer/guitarist Molly Rankin’s confident and delectable vocal delivery. Think Best Coast without all the sly winking, or Cherry Glazzer with a bit more awareness of its musical lineage. There’s distinct 60’s throwback pop enveloping Alvvays, from the wobbly, reverb-soaked guitars, to Rankin’s syrupy register slides like butter melting in a pan, but the record never feels like aping or cribbing from bands that have combed those sands before. It’s not even homage or worship—it’s the expression of hope gone wrong over instrumentation that isn’t quite ready to follow suit. Alvvays would like to still believe the world could be as easy as surf-rock wants it to be, but it is too smart to fall for the tease of a tan. The Toronto band serves up the ideal soundtrack to a pensive, California summer, and late July is the ideal time for the album’s release; it’s still blisteringly hot, but the dark comes earlier each night.
Toronto’s not necessarily known for any of the things the album conjures—sun, surf, sand—but by infusing the traditionally West Coast sound with an outsider’s perspective, the band tacks on the forlorn nature of an outsider to the sun-drenched fun. Like the kid who stands perched at the cliff’s edge, worrying about how deep the waterhole is before jumping, Alvvays want to have a good time, but is well aware that not everything is copacetic, even in the eternal sunshine. Rankin expressing these concerns with her golden yet tentative voice is what lends the extra dimension to the band’s jangly pop structures, and her earnestness comes through the album’s highlights—namely the first three tracks (all fit to be singles). The music says no worries, while Rankin’s timbre—deadpan as it may be—says yes worries. Rankin sings lines that don’t quite fit in with the jovial nature of the music, such as in the did-she-or-didn’t-she narrative of a drowned boyfriend in “Next of Kin,” creating dissonance that is both peculiar and intelligent for the genre. It’s enough to set the band a step ahead of the current pack of peroxide-using, bong-collecting left coast garage acts.
Beyond the sly lyrics—and the stellar closing track, “Red Planet”, a Broadcast/Beach House hybrid as good as either act—there aren’t many curveballs on Alvvays to catapult it beyond the realm where it will already resonate well. That’s okay, but the band’s angst is buried deep, and perhaps detectable only to people who are prone to deep listening—not necessarily the target audience of beachy pop rock. Those people will hear the band’s infectious melodies, retro yet youthful like on standout “Archie, Marry Me”, and be satisfied at the proficient pop sensibilities. That’s okay, too, I suppose, but Alvvays are frolicking in a well-mined arena with plenty of talented acts writing similar-sounding songs. It’s an area where bands come onto the scene hard, rock for a while, and turn to vapor without much dust kicked up when they do so. Alvvays has the know-how and execution to be a force should they choose to indulge, to perhaps get rather weird with it on their next offering, because while nuance is the album’s surprising strength, it may be what ultimately tethers Alvvays to solid—but not quite luminous—praise.
“I can’t believe it rained all summer long.”