"Too late to go out, too young to stay in,
they're talking about us living in sin."
For American surf bands, missing a wave or missing California is enough grief to create a song. But when listening to Alvvays’s fantastic Alvvays, one worries that surfing in Canada is an entirely more anxious affair.
Alvvays’s reverb-and-siren song combination is surprisingly fully realized for their self-titled debut, and it is clear that singer Molly Rankin has more on her mind than a little surfer girl. In title, the album’s second track, “Archie, Marry Me” harkens to the carefree, sugary optimism of the comic book’s mid-20th century. The lyric’s opening line, however, rests squarely in present-day. “You’ve expressed explicitly your contempt for matrimony / you’ve student loans to pay and will not risk the alimony,” Rankin sighs. In Rankin, Alvvays has a songwriter of the (now culturally-dominant) millennial generation. Expressions of wistful Atlantic coast fantasies contrast with Rankin’s knowledge that the blind, debt-bound ambition of the millennials will continue to produce anxiety-ridden adults.
Though the indie surfpop quintet deals primarily with distant drums and sparse, echoey guitar whispers, Rankin avoids taking the world on her shoulders. Akin to 21st Century surf queen Best Coast and Alvvays’s Polyvinyl labelmates STRFKR, Rankin’s introspection blooms beautifully when she suggests to a muse, “we could find comfort in debauchery,” on “Party Police.” Lyrically, Rankin and Alvvays outdo Best Coast and similarly double-‘v’ named surf bands through understated expression. Avoiding obvious indie and surf clichés, Rankin will not repeatedly pine for warmer days and marijuana.
At times, Rankin’s wispy voice as well those of her childhood friends and bandmates Kerri MacLellan and Alec O’Hanley’s faraway harmonies lull the idea of sunshine on the horizon. Alvvays’s sound, fleshed-out by Brian Murphy and Phil MacIsaac, tilts on the edge of sunburnt and sunburst. Yet Rankin’s continued, mild pleas for communication and self-confidence suggest that the beaches see more grey days in Toronto.
Perhaps the beach analogy is too far removed from the core of Alvvays’s sound. Primarily, Rankin’s lyrical self-reflection is mirrored in the music’s sparseness; like a photograph, Alvvays has a sound that seeks to capture light, and Rankin’s bleached look suggests that Alvvays’s exposure to light is sensitive.
Alvvays themselves ditch the beach and sail straight to the sun on the album’s closer, “Red Planet.” Even from the song’s outer space storytelling aspect, Rankin draws on a relationship’s co-dependence in balanced metaphor when she sings, “brushed by you at the bar, didn’t match your description / you soon became my prescription.” Alvvays, unlike purists, are unafraid to venture into the stratosphere by blending vintage synthesizer sounds with fading electronic drums and primitive congas.
As a band consisting of members born sometime between the late 80s and early 90s, Alvvays’s poly-generational references lose restriction of time. “Adult Diversion” veers on the janglepop of Oasis and even Belly (remember Belly? No, you don’t; like me, you probably hadn’t been born yet) while “Ones Who Love You” sounds as if the Beach Boys had made the forgotten album Sunflower in 2014. Weighted by Rankin’s cautious and wistful point-of-view, Alvvays has it all for any listener who might feel more comfortable observing a sunset through a lightly-tinted window than at a beach in North Ontario.