AN AUSPICIOUS DEBUT FOR SURE, BUT ALSO A MIXED BAG: ALVVAYS’S 2014 SELF-TITLE
Pros: “Archie, Marry Me” is one of 2014’s best tunes, and the album is, for the most part, peppy and appealing
Cons: Last four tracks are barely more than filler
I’ve often found it remarkable how many excellent music groups hail from Canada. For a period in the mid-2000s, it seemed like every band whose album I picked up, from Arcade Fire to Broken Social Scene, to Death From Above 1979 and numerous others, hailed from the Great White North, with many of them having received grant money from the Canadian government to help in the production of their work. This trend has only continued in the years since, and one of the latest Canadian exports to make an impact in the music scene is the five-piece Alvvays (pronounced “always”). Having made a name for itself at 2014’s South by Southwest Festival, the group had become a genuine sensation by the next year, playing a seemingly endless string of shows during the music portion of 2015’s event. This should hardly have been a surprise to anyone paying attention, since Alvvays’s self-titled debut, which released in July 2014, had risen to #1 on the College charts, producing four singles along the way.
Built around the super-smooth vocals of lead singer and guitarist Molly Rankin (who’s joined in the band by fellow guitarist Alec O’Hanley, keyboardist Kerri MacLellan, bassist Brian Murphy and drummer Phil MacIsaac), Alvvays has a bright, indie pop sound combining the crisp guitar melodies with hard-driving basslines and hazy keyboard. Rankin’s typically clean vocals soar over everything, clearly the focal point of each and every track here, and her lyrics often have a playful naughtiness which gives these songs an edge over other groups’ more entirely saccharine offerings. Opening track “Adult Diversion,” the album’s first single, gives the listener a good idea of what’s to come: with chugging bass and straight-ahead drumming, the song is chipper and danceable, building to a joyous chorus. The lyrics find Rankin imagining various potential relationships during a weekend getaway from college that features cocktails and some “inappropriate” behavior – many critics undoubtedly would reference the “witty” character of the lyrics, and I find them pretty amusing myself.
As good as the opener is, it’s the disc’s second track that literally stopped me in my tracks. The deliriously romantic “Archie, Marry Me” is a near-perfect indie pop love song, playing out to a relaxed rhythm with an appropriate amount of noise blaring behind the catchy main riffs. Follow-up “Ones who Love You” is no slouch either, a less flashy, quieter piece that’s nonetheless gorgeous to listen to. Rankin’s voice ranges from being almost pleading during the verses to positively triumphant during the chorus, her lyrics suggesting a sense of perseverance which is inspiring – even if various stanzas seem almost devious in their message. “Next of Kin” bumps the tempo back up a bit and sounds more instantly cheerful, with particularly powerful vocal melodies, while “Party Police” stands as a more heartfelt piece which finds Rankin urging a lover to stay with her so they “can find comfort in debauchery.” Sounds all right to me.
In all likelihood, it’s the fact that the first five songs are so strong – man-o-man this would have made been a KILLER EP – that makes the final four so forgettable. The slower “The Agency Group” and bouncy “Dives” aren’t bad tracks in and of themselves, but they lack the energy and, perhaps more crucially, the conviction of what had come previously, thus halting the album’s building momentum. By the time penultimate track “Atop a Cake” sounds off with its intricate, tinkling guitar before a rollicking rhythm picks up, I suspect many listeners sucked in by Alvvays’s irresistible singles would have simply moved along to something else. Final track “Red Planet,” essentially a (rather plodding) duet between Rankin’s voice and MacLellan’s keyboards, doesn’t do much to change my opinion about the album’s second half: it’s sparse and striking in its own way, but doesn’t hook a listener.
What one is left with is a record that’s alternately amazing and absolutely run-of-the-mill – the question then is whether the undeniably fantastic opening five tracks compensate for the dead weight that the last four tracks burden the album with. Personally, I think they do: Alvvays is so good initially that I can’t help but still recommend the album rather enthusiastically despite its obvious shortcomings. Fans of modern indie rock and/or pop owe it to themselves to give this a listen: it’s not the best all-around album of the past few years, but it has some definite standout moments. Here’s hoping the band can only build on what they accomplished here and make a more completely satisfying record next time around.