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Alvvays Sound Buzzed and Busy on ‘Blue Rev’

by Raghav Raj

Arts & Culture Editor

art by Frances McDowell


For Alvvays, the hooks have alvvays come easy. At this point, the Toronto-based indie outfit is something of an institution, a consistently delightful wellspring of tuneful and sticky-sweet pop music that never feels cloying or saccharine. With their starry-eyed debut single “Archie, Marry Me,” and the self-titled 2014 album that followed, they arrived on the indie-rock circuit fully formed, Alec O'Hanley’s dreamy Fender tones crashing into Molly Rankin’s soaring vocals like waves on the beach. On 2017’s Antisocialites, the songwriting got thornier as the music became clearer, assisted by John Congleton’s featherlight textures behind the boards and driven by the quintet’s unassailable melodic instincts.

On their latest record, Blue Rev, the band just keeps leveling up. Rankin and O'Hanley began writing the record in 2017, during their extensive tour around the US and Europe with The National. But a series of misfortunes, from a thief stealing a recorder from Rankin’s house with demo tapes, to a basement flood nearly wrecking the band’s gear the very next day — not to mention the global pandemic that separated the band by way of border closures between the US and Canada — delayed the recording to October of 2021, when the band reconvened in Los Angeles with producer Shawn Everett to set the songs to tape.

Everett, whose work has yielded some of the most essential indie-rock records (Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color, The War on Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding) of the past decade, brings a maximalism that plays on the push-and-pull tension of Alvvays’ music, elevating that tension into something deeply cathartic. Helmed by the ramped-up rhythm section of Sheridan Riley on kits and Abbey Blackwell playing bass, everything here sounds bigger, more effusive, more explosive; the hooks are hookier, the power chords are more powerful, and the anthems feel more anthemic than they’ve ever felt before.

It’s an incredible step forward for the band. Blue Rev is an ambitious record, overflowing with ideas and directions, distilled into a barrage of 14 songs under 40 minutes that never really lets its foot off the gas pedal. The longest song here, “Tom Verlaine,” doesn’t even cross the three-and-a-half minute mark; it’s a fiercely efficient space-rock gem, gliding through MBV-esque washes of fuzz, glimmering synths, and girl-group melodies at a feverish clip.

On the next song, “Pressed,” the angular, jangly guitar work evokes none other than Verlaine’s band Television, firing into a key-change that lifts the song towards something dreamlike and dissonant all at once. And after that, they dive headlong into the Mazzy Star-esque gleam of “Many Mirrors,” a cosmic collision between O’Hanley’s guitar heroics and Rankin’s tailspin of hooks, a song cascading into itself as it reverberates ahead.

Rankin’s ability to construct a deliciously catchy tune remains unparalleled, but it’s bolstered on Blue Rev by a quantum leap in her songwriting, which is disarmingly fluid and staggeringly vivid at once. If the current mode of indie rock songwriting exists within a sardonic, stream of consciousness monologue, Rankin’s wordplay serves as a skipping stone, as keen on jumping from one idea to another as it is to simply take the plunge and let the surf wash all over it. There’s a deep longing in her language, but it comes by way of memory colliding with the mundane reality: it’s an old lover’s sister at the pharmacist that reminds her of a worn, unvisited path; it’s the dull knife of college education, monochromatic hallways, another weekend spent alone; it’s an earthquake moving flowers to your feet as you’re weighed down.

Even on songs like “Very Online Guy,” an absurdist, synth-slathered psych-rock song about a reply guy, Rankin manages to find a moment of piercing clarity (“the truth is I’m afraid of sudden change/but when you’re close to me, does anyone notice?”) and lingers on it as it swells into a crescendo of existential angst. She’s astutely aware of the present, even as she wraps herself in jealousy and longing — as she says on the gauzy “Velveteen,” “who am I to debase in this economy?” Belinda Carlisle might’ve said that heaven is a place on Earth, but Rankin’s response cuts to the bone, yearning to escape from the comfort of settling down into something new: “well, so is hell.” That song, “Belinda Says,” is another example of Alvvays’ immaculate songcraft, coming to a head at this brilliantly structured climax, lifting keys into a soaring solo that tears through all this existential dread with revelatory force.

Incredibly, that’s not even the best solo here. That arrives at the conclusion of “Pomeranian Spinster,” which is maybe the single best song that the band has ever crafted, a perfect rush of gleaming bluster that carries all the momentum of a freight train throttling downhill with the brakes cut. It comes out of the gate like its been shot out of a cannon, Rankin spitting out fuck-you-isms (“I don’t wanna be nice/I don’t want your advice”) as guitars and organs squall behind her. It’s mealy-mouthed and hyper-literate at once, detouring and careening from hummingbirds to pomeranians, glass slippers to Presbytarian ministers, a thrashing, spirited barrage that’s deliciously defiant of misogynist expectations. Even before O’Hanley’s guitar comes screaming in, “Pomeranian Spinster” is Blue Rev at its most elemental, a rip-roaring barnburner of epic proportions. That solo — one of the most thrilling moments on as exciting a rock record as I’ve heard in years — is just the cherry on top.

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