Tuesday, July 22, 2014

album review: 'alvvays' by alvvays

For those of you who weren't watching my series a good year ago or those who perused my back catalog back before I had a decent camera or any presence in front of it, you might remember that I didn't exactly have a lot of material to cover in the middle of the summer. There's a reason for that: like early January, the mid-summer tends to be a dead zone for album releases under the assumption that the radio has already locked in their 'songs of the summer' and people will have already picked up the albums they want if they're going to the beach or cottage or the backyard barbeque. And in a year where the pop charts have been fairly stagnant in terms of turnover or are populated by singles from albums released last year, it leaves album critics like myself in a bit of a tight spot. It's gotten to the point where the albums battling out for the top spot this week are Jason Mraz and Weird Al Yankovic, neither of which are acts you would ever expect to get a #1 hit!

And since I already covered Weird Al and you couldn't pay me to cover Jason Mraz, I thought I might hop into my backlog of critically acclaimed records that I may have passed over - but the problem with that is I already covered most of those records too, and the ones I might have missed have discographies that require a bit more time to peel through before I feel confident in talking about them. So in sheer desperation, I went that wretched hive of scum and villainy - Pitchfork - and grabbed the first record that looked somewhat interesting, a debut album from a Canadian band called Alvvays. Based out of Toronto, they're an indie pop quintet that is advertised as pairing 'millennial social anxiety with breezy effortlessly cool surf rock'. In other words, the perfect act to drop an album in the middle of summer. So I picked up that self-titled debut album and gave it a listen: how was it?

Well, this is definitely an interesting case - because the self-titled debut by Alvvays definitely stands out from the indie rock crowd this year and turned out to be a surprisingly intelligent, dramatic, and genuinely gripping record hidden beneath the trappings of effortless cool and wry, too-clever-for-their-own-damn-good smiles. In other words, a record that on the surface seems to be the sort of indie rock that operates on the double level of enjoyable and insufferable... but then viciously subverts it to actually have some surprising depth beneath it in a surprisingly great record. It's not perfect, but there's enough real drama on this debut that makes it very easy for me to recommend and praise.

Let's start with the instrumentation, which is a bit of an odd fusion between the mid-to-late 80s jangling indie pop rock of acts like REM or that recently reissued C86 compilation with the breezy surf-rock of the early 60s. Think of a 60s-inspired pop act like the B-52s with all of their polish and flair sanded off for a rougher, richer, earthier sound, but all of the easy grooves of the melodic progressions preserved. The guitar tones are washed out but still maintain a crackling, borderline lo-fi presence that doesn't so much add edge but texture to compliment the drums and occasional drum machines on tracks like 'Ones Who Love You'. What I found most impressive was the integration of the keyboard sections on tracks like 'Dives' and 'Red Planet', which have a rich burnished balance that really compliment the guitars surprisingly well. And for the most part, the production is solid too - fuzzy, lo-fi, and yet never preventing the melodies from coming through on an expansive, colourful mix.

And into this already strong indie rock sound steps Molly Rankin - yes, of that Rankin family - who brings a lot of bright-eyed cleverness and passion to her vocals that toes the line between First Aid Kit's shimmering folk edges and Lana Del Rey's 60s-inspired pop diva, albeit with significantly less glamour and flash. And what I love about her delivery is that there's a lot of subtlety: on the surface, she might seem to be your stereotypical bubbly Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but the trope is subverted completely when she shows a darker side, from the hidden edges that drive the more unsettling lyrics to the real vulnerability and despair she displays when the character she plays gets exactly what she wants, for better or for ill. But before I get to those lyrics, let's talk about the one big gripe I do have with this record: the vocal production. Simply put, as much as Rankin's voice draws attention in the mix, the dense instrumentation and echoing production on tracks like 'Ones Who Love You' and 'Dives' can make her lyrics more than a little difficult to pull out and decipher.

Which really is a shame, because the lyrics and themes are definitely the highlight of this record. The tagline of 'millennial social anxiety meets breezy, effortlessly cool surf rock' is completely apt, because it's rare that I've seen an album succeed so well in capturing the contradiction of a disaffected generation trying so earnestly to detach, and yet doesn't really have a clue what comes with 'adulthood'. Or to put it another way, when Alvvays eventually ends up on HBO's Girls, it would make perfect sense - and this is speaking as a member of that millennial generation in question. The opening track 'Adult Diversion' sets the scene and themes right out of the gate, a girl hunting for her 'the one' and frustrated with her inability to connect with the guy she's watching on the subway. And it's telling that in this song and the follow-up 'Marry Me, Archie', that she's waiting for the guy in question to make the move - a move that doesn't seem to be forthcoming. This highlights three lyrical elements on this record I really love: the vast aspirations of Rankin's character, her dreams to soar above her peers that is perfectly framed to highlight her own self-obsession; the underlying flightiness and 'live-for-the-moment' passion of the relationships in both directions and her willingness to casually toss them aside, highlighted brilliantly in the casually disregarded death of 'Next Of Kin'; and the altogether earnest longing for real love. All three elements come together starkly in songs like 'Party Police' and 'The Agency Group', where Rankin's character sings about that one night hookup and then the aftermath, where both people deny their affection and it rings as more than a little futile.

But that's when Alvvays takes an unexpected twist: it shows the consequences. 'Dives', from the lyrics that I was able to parse out, seems to show the relationship progress into a slow stagnation punctuated by the telling line, 'you never get it on the first time'. And suddenly, the narrator gets exactly what she wanted as marriage looms in 'Atop A Cake' and that self-obsession leaps to the forefront in both her and her spouse as he reveals to himself as a controlling dick. And then the album ends with 'Red Planet', inspired by Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library #19 that hammers the themes perfectly: the obsession with an ideal shaped by the narrator's own appetites and not by the reality she got. And it's a reality she effectively backed into through her own behavior, and now she's stuck living in the consequences of her actions in a marriage perhaps to the wrong person entirely, conforming to a societal norm she originally gave the middle finger in songs like 'Party Police' and 'Ones Who Love You'. And the metaphor snaps into sharp focus with a pointed message at our generation: that ultimately an attitude of detachment and self-absorption and superficial defiance will leave us falling into the same suburban discontentment, and that the vapid platitudes and shallow societal trappings are concealing something much bleaker and less satisfying, which are perfectly framed in the clash between the sunny instrumentation and distinctly frosty lyrics.  

So if this sounds entirely too cerebral for an upbeat summer pop record... okay, it probably is, and I'll admit I'm probably reading a little too far into this, but honestly, it works because the self-titled debut by Alvvays has a lot to say and executes exceptionally well. It's the sort of music that can easily be enjoyed on two levels - the breezy, upbeat indie pop rock that's perfect for beaches and camp outs, and as a pointed examination and critique of the laid-back attitudes lurking beneath them. In other words, it was a record I really ended up liking, and it's getting a strong 8/10 from me. Folks, indie rock is seldom this smart and layered, especially when its masked as something so twee and shallow, so check out the self-titled debut from Alvvays - you will not regret it.

No comments:

Post a Comment