Alvvays (pronounced “always,” not like a tipsy Christoph Waltz) is one of those bands that serendipitously sounds exactly like what their name promises: winsome, thoughtful music that sticks with the listener long after the album is over. There’s also an element of irony in the name; a collection of music for sad millennials, by sad millennials, the self-titled LP is a meditation on young adult disillusionment and how love and promises and ambitions fade as you figure out how the world works. The Toronto quintet’s debut album is remarkably confident and is another source of validation for my long-held theory that the best indie pop music is coming out of Canada. Alvvays has crafted nine near-impeccable tracks that are at once both timeless and modern, emotionally universal and darkly personal.
The thing about lo-fi music is that it sounds like it should be easy to make, right? Combining shitty microphones and a ton of reverb and overdrive will result in a passable approximation, but the secret to lo-fi is that it’s actually really difficult to do it well. Produced by Canadian musician Chad VanGaalen, Alvvays ably straddles the line between earthy garage rock and shimmery twee. The production values are excellent, and the album is crafted so well that every individual instrument is easy to pull out of the mix, from ragged, warm guitars to the impossibly punchy basslines, towering drums, and glitchy synth. Sound this dense can be can be hard to balance when working with fuzzy tones, but VanGaalen lends a steady hand to make sure each instrument shines. At the same time, there’s a trance-like quality to the way the individual parts bleed together just around the edges, like a mesmerizing, hazy mirage that doesn’t quite pull into focus. The result sounds a lot like what might happen if Best Coast accidentally tumbled into a very deep cavern and got kinda bummed out about it.Every song on the album is built like an intricate diorama, and it takes repeated listens for some of the more subtle instrumental arrangements to really bloom. Consider, for example, the magnetic lead guitar on surf-rock opener “Adult Diversion” and the way it beautifully intersects and diverges from lead singer Molly Rankin’s plaintive vocal line. Or the interesting way the chorus of “Dives” switches to 3/4 time, laid over the unwavering 4/4 synth drum beat, an initally off-putting moment that clicks as soon as your ear figures out what’s going on. Or even the eleventh-hour monkey wrench that is “Red Planet,” a haunting down-tempo track bereft of the drums, bass, and guitar that have been the driving force of the entire rest of the album–it’s a bold choice to end the album with a track that’s nothing more than ghostly vocals over a impenetrable wall of spacy synths, but it pays off and leaves a lasting impression.
The magical component of the band is lead singer Molly Rankin, whose pure voice and mature, winkingly wry lyrics set the band’s music apart from many of their contemporaries. Rankin, who originally tried to hack it in Nova Scotia as a folksy singer-songwriter (appropriate, since she’s a relative of the Canadian roots/folk collective The Rankin Family), decided to change tack and recruited a band, bleached her hair, and relocated to Toronto. Evidently the move was a good decision, because Rankin’s influence is all over the record, and her knack for writing massive vocal hooks and tongue-in-cheek turns of phrase is clearly what makes Alvvays tick. Most cuts on the album are wistful and simmer with discontentment. Never overtly angry or sad, the characters in the songs are drifters, lost in thought. For instance, the narrator in “Marry Me, Archie,” arguably the best cut on the LP, is tired of staying home with her boyfriend who won’t commit, but unsure of what else to do:
“Too late to go out
Too young to stay in
They’re talking about
Us living in sin”
Apathy and defeatism positioned against the ever-deflating promise of youth is certainly something that people our age are uniquely equipped to wrestle with, and Rankin knows it; elsewhere, her characters self-medicate and wax poetic. In “Next of Kin,” Rankin finds herself annoyed with her partner because “you took something before you went to the shower / to help suppress the things that make you feel uptight,” before lamenting in the chorus that “I left my love in the river / I lost his hand in the current.” It’s an initially sad revelation that turns darkly funny upon her admission that “it was the life I wanted and I hoped for.” (Ouch.)
The band ultimately gleans its power from upbeat tunes paired with lyrics that would read as overly maudlin if not filtered through Rankin’s beautifully unique voice. Late-album highlight “Atop a Cake” would be, perhaps appropriately, cloyingly sweet if not for the bitter pill nestled within (“I lie on a sofa awake with what you said last night / ‘I’d like us on top of a cake, but you wont let me take a bite'”). Cold feet aren’t uncommon, but Rankin’s narrator has doubts and her betrothed won’t hear them. It’s romantic comedy and tragedy rolled into a golden confection, and a perfect encapsulation of Alvvays‘ burning question: “what’s left when the things that are supposed to last forever, don’t?”
Alvvays – Alvvays is available now in stores, digitally, and on the band’s website.