Alvvays Return To Indie-Pop Glory On ‘Blue Rev’

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Of all the factors that are considered when planning the release of an album — booking promotional interviews, plotting the support concert tour, picking which band photo looks the least awkward — the most underrated element is seasonal.

Too few artists are self-aware about the time of year when their music hits most effectively. Beyoncé, of course, gets it — she put out her latest LP, the upbeat dance-obsessed fantasia Renaissance, in the heart of the summer. That’s precisely where it belonged. Big Thief, on the other hand, released one of the finest road-trip albums of modern times, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, in February. Clearly, this is a record that demanded to arrive in April or May, in the dewy midst of spring, a time of year when the road inevitably beckons.

Thankfully, the Canadian dream-pop band Alvvays appears to be attuned to their unique seasonal appropriateness. On their first two records, 2014’s Alvvays and 2017’s Antisocialites, they established themselves as the finest contemporary practitioners of what I’ll classify as sweater-weather music. There are two ways to define sweater-weather music — first, it’s the kind of song that somehow conveys a certain melancholy chilliness while also sounding warm and engaging, typically via a mix of an emotionally restrained vocal, laidback and vaguely retro instrumentation, and an indelible melody. Second (and more succinctly) sweater-weather music sounds at least a little like Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater.”

All of this is to say that the third Alvvays album due on Friday, Blue Rev, is perfectly timed for early October. I have played my promo stream many times in the past several weeks, and I swear the album has steadily improved as the temperature has steadily declined. Watching the leaves outside my office window change color has added new shadings to the songs. The necessity of wearing an extra layer of clothing whenever I venture outside has seemingly made the music sound more layered. I think you catch my drift. This is sweater-weather music through and through.

Accentuating the autumnal pleasure of it all is the passage of time between Alvvays releases. Waiting five years for Blue Rev undoubtedly makes it seem more special, even if the album doesn’t sound like it took five years to make or, really, all that radically different from what Alvvays has always done. If you know the first two records, you will not be surprised by the third. It’s true that the basic tracks — per the instruction of producer Shawn Everett, best known in indie circles for his sterling work with The War On Drugs and Alabama Shakes — were recorded live with a new and energetic rhythm section, which makes Blue Rev the hardest rocking Alvvays album to date. (I realize this might seem like a meaningless distinction, like describing Diet Mountain Dew as the healthiest form of toxic waste. But the guitars on this record really are heavy in the relative sense.)

This is most apparent on the spitefully surging “Pomeranian Spinster,” in which singer Molly Rankin insists “I’m going to get what I want / I don’t care who it hurts” with her best Justine Frischmann-esque sneer. You can also hear this feisty new ‘tude in the pre-release single “Very Online Guy,” a droll and discordant character study about a familiar type of internet nitwit who “likes to hit reply / he’s incredibly vigilant / hair with the feathered wings / he likes to pull the strings.” On one of the album’s best songs, “Velveteen,” Alvvays even take on the arena synth-rock sheen of another past collaborator of Everett’s, The Killers, with unprecedented swagger.

But for the most part, Alvvays remain very good at sounding like Alvvays. The formula is simple but effective — reverb-heavy guitars that jangle and sprawl, a wiry bassline, sighing synths, a chorus that lifts out of the verse in a manner that can only be described as shyly grandiose, a vocal that sounds sampled from a long-lost radio hit from 1965, and (hopefully) one well-placed reference in the lyrics to pop culture ephemera. On Blue Rev, there are nods to Tom Verlaine of the legendary post-punk band Television, Angela Lansbury’s character on the TV detective show Murder, She Wrote, and the 1987 Belinda Carlisle smash hit “Heaven Is A Place On Earth.” Somehow, these allusions perfectly encapsulate the band’s aesthetic of self-effacing bookish cool.

While Alvvays was an acclaimed and indie-popular band on the first two records, the understated music and Rankin’s unassuming public-facing persona have made them an easy band to take for granted. But in the five years since Antisocialites, they have evolved into something wholly unexpected: a legacy act. As a wry chronicler of young-adult ennui in an age of social media and late capitalism, Rankin slightly predates the generation of singer-songwriters — Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Japanese Breakfast, Julien Baker — who have codified this style into the predominant sound of modern indie. Soncially, Alvvays is now a common touchstone for emerging bands who, perhaps, have been fooled into thinking that what Alvvays does is easily replicable. As my colleague Ian Cohen has observed, so many young indie groups dabbling in shoegaze guitars and oldies radio songcraft sound like “Alvvays without the tunes.” They are, in other words, less good at sounding like Alvvays than Alvvays.

If there is a key to cracking the code of what makes Alvvays special in a sea of superficially similar imitators, it really does seem to come down to the tunes. Recently, I had some friends over for a backyard hang and “Archie, Marry Me” from the self-titled Alvvays LP came on. (Alvvays, admittedly, also sounds great in the summer.) One of my friends didn’t know Alvvays or the song, but he swore he heard it somewhere before. Is it Camera Obscura? Broadcast? A Lesley Gore tune on a malfunctioning cassette tape? A lot of Alvvays songs are like that — Rankin and her co-songwriter, guitarist Alec O’Hanley, are truly gifted when it comes to writing tunes that already seem familiar the first time you hear them without ever directly ripping off an older classic song.

Nothing on Blue Rev quite meets the timeless standard of “Archie, Marry Me.” But I’m already prepared to identify at least two tracks, “Many Mirrors” and “Bored In Bristol,” as functionally perfect pop-rock tunes. I could tell you what they sound like, but I think I’ve already done that. They sound like Alvvays. And sounding like Alvvays is high praise, indeed.