Alvvays - Alvvays (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick


Alvvays (2014)


Of any new band of 2014, Alvvays won me over the quickest (though I definitely did not write this review the quickest since this came out last July…) and their self-titled debut made the #6 spot on my unofficial personal Top 20 of 2014. I love me some '80s twee/indie pop, and this Toronto band is, knowingly, deeply indebted to that scene of K Records and UK’s Sarah Records. They clearly have studied NME magazine’s '80s cassettes like the legendary C86 comp that introduced much of North America to the Jesus and Mary Chain, The Pastels, The Wedding Present, Primal Scream and more. But falling in love with a band or album immediately can lead to burning out just as fast. Is there enough here to keep my lasting interest? Are the songs good enough to stand the test of time? So far the answer is yes, and while I’m addicted to these songs, the band does have some overused tricks and trappings.

Alvvays owe a lot to Beat Happening, Belle and Sebastian, Tiger Trap, Black Tambourine, the previously mentioned Pastels and the like. But they also have some modern peers. Singer Molly Rankin’s voice reminds me most of Cassie Ramone from the Vivian Girls; a voice that is not overly trained but not affected or rough. Just a normal woman singing with her natural voice. It’s refreshing. Musically they don’t sound like Vivian Girls, they’re more like Tennis or Scotland's Veronica Falls, or to name a bigger indie band The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, referring more to that group’s recent Days of Abandon sound than their earlier fuzzier or '90s alt styles.

To further answer the questions in my first paragraph, yes, while this record immediately grabs you with it’s hooks, it has replay value due in part to the arrangements and production. Opener “Adult Diversion” is their mission statement: Ample reverb, surfy lead guitar, twinkly background arpeggios and then the big seller, Rankin’s voice. She’s on pitch always (alvvays?) but her tone is not too fancy or trained. There is no needless vibrato here, and it’s interesting while not being barf-inducing twee cute. These are mostly love songs and I’m fine with that, but it’s not all hand-holding, thank goodness: “Adult Diversion” is basically about her stalking some dude. ”One more cocktail / I’m on your trail” and later ”One more cocktail / Is it a good time? / Or is it highly inappropriate?”

Another clear standout, "Archie Marry Me" just yells twee -- meaning, if you’re unfamiliar with that term -- they're saying "we may share a similar ancestry to a quote-unquote punk band, but we do want to commit to relationships and to settle down, and also we’re not gonna be all aggro singing about it." The chorus melody is an instant earworm and easy to sing along with, as the guitars jangle in a haze of reverb and the drums bounce along. "Party Police" shows Rankin getting a bit naughty with the catchy chorus ending with "We can find comfort in debauchery” and later on “comfort in biology.” Y’know, like sexy time. Another strength of the release is Chad Vangaalen’s production. At first he struck me as an odd choice, seeming like a guy too out there in his own weird world to know what to do with a pop band. But instead he brings just the right amount of ambiance and lo-fi to the band’s songs, and they are captured just the way any twee band should be. The songs are recorded well enough to not detract from their catchiness, but not so clean as to do away with the “shambling” nature of the genre (as John Peel would put it). As for the rest of the set, “Dive” brings the tempo down nicely with 6/8 drum machine, “Atop a Cake” is as happy a melody as you could think of, and “Next of Kin” is incredibly singable, with buzzing synths filling in behind the twinkly guitars.

The only downside I’ve found with this band is the overuse of a particular songwriting trick. Here’s how it works: during the last chorus they pull back and cut the drums/cut the guitars/cut something, and then BAM hit you with the full band halfway through to take the chorus home. They do this in SEVEN of the nine tracks, and while it’s a cool technique it gets less cool each time. The only song on the album that falters is the closer, “Red Planet.” It’s got a nice, aesthetically pleasing sound (likely influenced by Vangaalen) with swelling synths and understated drum machine, but after an album full of toe-tapping pop, it brings down the vibe, and right at the end of the album. I can understand why they wanted to include something out of the norm, but it falls a little flat.

Alvvays are filling a hole in the guitar-based part of the indie rock scene today, with everyone bringing the '90s back in various forms. Emo is back. Shoegaze is back. But twee? Few bands are bringing it like Alvvays. As one of my favorite genres I welcome it. Their sound is fully formed, but they could stand to mix it up in song structure and technique, but that’s being picky. One of my favorite releases of the year and highly recommended.