Alvvays - Alvvays

New band from Toronto strangely serves up the ideal soundtrack to a pensive, California summer.

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ALBUM: Alvvays

ARTIST: Alvvays



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.”

1. Adult Diversion
Right out of the gates, the band delivers one of the best summer songs in recent memory. It recalls a golden time of carefree cruising blue above and green below; it also expresses deep concern as a function of looking away: this is what happens when we have to face the facts of getting older, gaining responsibility, trading the surf boards for binders and briefcases. I don’t know how to reconcile youth with responsibility, my entire generation doesn’t know, and Alvvays certainly doesn’t have an answer: “Is it a good time/ or is it highly inappropriate?”. It’s painful to think about not doing what you want to do all the time. That’s why we watch television and movies about people who do. The fact that the band turns the sentiment into one of the catchiest songs of the year is a feat beyond the music.10.0
2. Archie, Marry Me
A simple riff is made into saccharine sweet bubble gum pop (the song could be a Smoking Popes cover) through Rankin’s vocal melody; one that makes it easy to picture the peroxide blonde singing about desperately wanting marriage to be batting her long eyelashes while doing so. I can’t help but think the song is a bit of a send-up of the time from which it echoes, in that marriage and white picket fences, while still a very present part of society, are an antiquated part of popular music. That idea is heightened with the conservative lines, “Too late to go out/ too young to stay in/ They’re talking about/ us living in sin.” The fact that Alvvays is playing songs about living in sinful conditions premarriage (or marriage at all) in 2014 is funny; an aspect I don’t think is wasted on the band.8.8
3. Ones Who Love You
A gentle pop song (a bit of a come-down considering the one-two punch of the opening tracks) with a drum machine beat as reliable as the lapping tides. “When the wheels come off/ I’ll be an astronaut/ I will be lost in space/ I will be skipping rocks,” Rankin sings, painting a picture worth revisiting simply because of the comfort the weightlessness brings. She’s going through a litany of what it means to care about living: love. It’s simple, but elegantly stated: “Love the ones who love you. / Leave the ones who don’t.” It’s not about trying to make it work. The song is not bite, as the well placed fuck near the end of the song reminds the listener that the vibe is not as it seems. There are edges to this track, indicative of the complex narrative that Alvvays weave throughout the entire record.8.4
4. Next of Kin
The middle of three tracks that have nearly the exact same running length (3:48). “We walked along the rocks for nearly an hour/ I carved the way you looked at me in the sunlight.” It’s seems like a straightforward love song, then the male character in the song drowns. The song makes subtle allusions that its singer didn’t do all she could to stop the boy from perishing. That’s something new—a twist on the traditional folk song “Banks of Ohio” perhaps. It’s that kind of wit that elevates the album, plus the hook is killer: “I left my love in the river."7.8
5. Party Police
A floating, down tempo number with one of the album’s most intricate guitar leads. Producer Chad VanGaalen perfectly pitches the instruments so that they melt into one another, creating a flowing dreamscape. The synth backdrop gives an air of Lynchian muse Julee Cruise. Rankin’s vocal melody is busy, which lightly clashes against the serene instrumentation. It’s an instance where going against what is expected makes the song stronger because of the dissonance, as the actual urgency of the lyrics is made apparent through how they’re sung: “Don’t run, don’t leave/ you can just stay here with me…/ we can find comfort in debauchery.”7.2
6. The Agency Group
Alvvays is at home within contemplative, mid-tempo cruises, and “Agency Group” is another stroll through the twilit scenery, this time more forested than coastal. This track is largely comprised of only Rankin and the steady drumbeat, with guitar chords only accentuating the melody rather than providing it. The band is aware of its greatest strength here. While the track is not the album’s strongest, it’s the vocal hook that anchors it into solid ground. Rankin’s pensive yawn is emotionally draining “When you whisper you don’t think of me that way/ when I mention you don’t mean that much to me.” When the guitar line follows Rankin’s words during the second verse, the song blooms. More savvy guitar work follows in the extended bridge, providing a comfort that the band can back up the soul of its vocals.7.7
7. Dives
At times, the track is very reminiscent of Cults bubble gum jaunts, but it’s Rankin sliding her voice into the minor that makes the song most interesting. It’s disorienting but apt, as it conveys the searching to which makes “Dives” broadly appealing. The guitar work is largely comprised of two alternating arpeggios, much more simple than other times on the record, but after the last track’s six-string intricacies, I can see it’s a talented restraint on the band’s end to keep things low key. It’s a pleasant song, but minor within the album.7.0
8. Atop a Cake
The jangly aura of late ‘60’s flower children is all over this one. The song’s faster tempo and galloping drums makes it seem more upbeat than it actually is, a tale of love gone wrong and the struggle to try to put back together pieces that will no longer form a whole. It’s a common theme, but nuanced in the right places here, as Rankin blames both parties for the destruction. There is no name-calling or misplaced blame. When love ends, there are usually a myriad of factors, and it takes a wise soul to turn the mirror inward.7.2
9. Red Planet
The album’s closer is populated with an atypical synth passage at the forefront, reminiscent of Broadcast’s warm electronics. Rankin sounds especially serious, and gone is the jocular delivery of the album’s more upbeat songs. It’s fitting to end on a down note, as the album has been orbiting this sort of feeling throughout, and it’s a bit comforting to have the note finally hit head-on before the record ends. The song is a different beat for the band, a welcome change, and, honestly, with the song being as capable as it is, perhaps could have served the band well to pepper the album with tracks of this type throughout. Though the song is in the realm of Beach House fare, Rankin’s stark candor does a great job of making the ending count: “I waited for you out here/ But that may be delusional/ and I painted all these pictures/ of earth but that’s unusual to you.”8.8
Michael McDermit is an artist living in Oregon. He is a contributing member of the My Idea of Fun artist collective and currently teaches writing and literature at the University of Oregon.

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