“Makes you feel alive” is one of the most common and unhelpful cliches of praise we heap onto albums we love. It’s unhelpful because it doesn’t really tell us anything about the music — whatever makes you feel alive is based purely on your own life experience, your aspirations and your ideals. If I tell you that Alvvays put together a great debut, and one of the best albums of the year, because listening to it makes me feel alive, that tells you more about me than it does the music.
Still, sometimes that’s the only phrase that hits the bullseye, dead center, and so we dust off that worn phrase.
To support that sentence, I’ll qualify it like this: Alvvays will make you feel alive if your idea of life is twee musings on love; broad strokes of heartbreak; sweetness; sadness; and the fuzzy lo-fi marriage of 60s girl group pop and 90s indie pop. If you count C86 among your favorite albums, if peak pop to you is “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” if heartache has ever made a song sound better: meet Alvvays. (Pronounced “Always.”)
Think of Real Estate’s sunny day string plucking combined with the inspired nostalgia of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Take The Pipettes on “Pull Shapes,” remove any robot parts, and fuse the pop IQ of Chvrches on “Gun.”
The five piece band consists of Phil MacIsaac, Brian Murphy, Alec O’Hanley, Kerri MacLellan and Molly Rankin of the storied Rankin family name. The numbers means that they can form a classic full band line-up: guitar, drums, bass, keyboard and vocals. That matters because there’s something very classic about Alvvays music — less receptive listeners might call it textbook — and a lot of it puts the joy back into hearing just basic, solid, catchy full band do what they’re meant to do. Today’s indie rock and pop music spreads out to incorporate hyper modern elements like dirty bass synths and vocal effect experiments, or hyper antique novelties like banjos and fiddles. It is good to be reminded that a tried and true regular band is still capable of freshness.
They remind you that a formula exists because if you plug in the right elements, in the right order, with tight precision and attention to detail, you can knock it out of the park over and over.
I’m going to be using words like “classic” and “regular” a lot, but I don’t want you to think that means Alvvays is boring. What I want to signal is that this band adheres to a formula, sure, but that doesn’t mean they lack imagination. They’re merely masters of this form and execution. They remind you that a formula exists because if you plug in the right elements, in the right order, with tight precision and attention to detail, you can knock it out of the park over and over.
Take the wildfire single, “Archie, Marry Me.” The title already brings to mind idyllic Archie Comics romances, and listening to its retro pop fuzz doesn’t dispel that notion. From the opening strum, the foundational chord progression is set, and the rest of the song sticks to it like a glove. Melodies oscillate around it, building a pleasing familiarity as the hooks kick in again and again, and Rankin sings about big things. Not something as meek as love or marriage, but aspirational love, the kind that is more transformative than safe. It’s tightly structured with the prettiest escalation, the most satisfying elliptical melodies, the most youthful bridge. It’s a hot rod with all the shiniest, classic parts.
Molly Rankin sings with a voice with a deep enough tone that it avoids sounding cartoonishly cutesy, the way some Pains of Being Pure at Heart songs tend to rub. It’s singable. You don’t listen to her and think, wow, check out the pipes on her, you think, this is a beautiful melody and I want to sing too. The writing doesn’t aim for poetic exposition or saccharine sweetness. Like the music, it’s just tightly calibrated hook after hook after hook. My favorite is in the somber “Party Police,” which goes: “You don’t have to leave / you could just stay here with me / forget all the party police / we can find comfort in debauchery.” Each of those lines, when pinned to a melody that reaches to the stars every other phoneme, is a direct hit to some inner pleasure center.
In the music comic Phonogram, the band Los Campesinos! is described by a character: “They’re never going to be Big big. But they’re going to be big to some people.” That’s a line I think about a lot, especially for bands that play to a niche, that channel their energy into such a small passage that it amplifies its strength. Alvvays may still yet become the hot new thing in indie rock, but with this blissful debut they’ve already ensured that they’ll be a big deal to a swath of listeners swept clean off their feet.
Justin Pansacola is a writer living in Los Angeles. At the University of California, Riverside he received his degree in Creative Writing, not English, although he has resigned to the fact that no one cares about the difference. You can follow him on Twitter @wordcore. On some nights he looks up at the moon and wonders if you’re looking at the same moon, too.