by Preston Radtke
This may come as a shock, but 2014’s self-titled debut release by the Canadian jangle-pop outfit Alvvays caused a slight schism in the indie community. Many usually like-minded pundits praised the dreamy production, and lyrically driven hooks, while their comrades bemoaned the record’s cliché themes and rather basic song arrangements. Following this record, the band blitzkrieged the globe with live performances, from playing empty rooms in New Mexico to playing the Saturday afternoon main stage at Lollapalooza 2017. Many listeners anticipated new releases from the janglers, but instead Rankin and company spent their time in vans and onstage.
Now, some of the songs they’ve been playing live for the past years (such as “Not My Baby” and “Hey”) finally have a home on a studio album. Antisocialites has much of the same flavor and texture as Alvvays, save for the fact that the album is simply more ambitious and structured. Songs off of their initial release were cute and charming, but also very formulaic and obvious. Alvvays certainly hasn’t become a jangle version of Tom Waits, but the improved song structures and instrumental interplays have certainly propelled the band. Some of the band’s previous ghosts still haunt them unfortunately; song themes and dud song inclusions have held this record back from becoming a truly seminal recording.
Despite maturity, they’re lyrically still stuck in freshman year
The jangle-pop genre has never pretended to be one that deals with heavy or unique topics. Nonetheless, Alvvays has stagnated in terms of song meaning and context on Antisocialites. Of the record’s ten tracks, six of them deal explicitly with love and longing. Only the very desolate track “Forget About Life” seems to deal with topics that are not tangentially or obviously related to love or relationships at a young age.
On the other hand though, Alvvays writes about these themes in more mature, complex ways. For instance, the track “In Undertow” tells the tale of a lover who has done the protagonist wrong. Certainly an old trope, Alvvays differentiates this track from others via its distorted progression, vocal performances, and vocal arrangement. This track features choruses, yes, as well as simplified lyrics, but it also features a nontraditional climactic conclusion. Furthermore, Rankin’s vocals are truly exquisite on the song; reverb and her already very cerulean vocal texture provide the perfect amount of sunshine and shimmer for the instrumentally sound piece. “In Undertow” is a prime example of tired themes and basic lyrics being overshadowed by vocal and instrumental performances to create a truly outstanding track.
Alvvays bask in the clouds and in the garage
After their first record, Alvvays perfected the jangle pop sound. Their music was very sunny, and light, and overtly happy. This record on the other hand strays in to such foreign genres as garage rock, and even punk rock. The fourth track, “Your Type”, only sounds like Alvvays because of Molly Rankin. The verses and choruses are all aggressive and chaotic enough to remind listeners of underground punk, not twee or jangle pop.
“Lollipop (Ode to Jim)” is probably the most un-Alvvays track of them all. The track opens with what sounds almost like an intro to an industrial or noise record. Then the drums jump in with an amount of aggression and force never before heard in the Alvvays catalog. The rest of the track plays out much like a garage rock piece with its strained vocals, vague lyrics, and slightly sporadic tempos.
The album also features little moments of experimentation. Much like the previously mentioned “In Undertow”, “Plimsoll Punks” sound almost quintessentially Alvvays except for when the bridge happens. On this track though, the instrumentation completely jumps off the deep end, sounding almost ambient and electronic in a very haunting way. In both cases, the juxtaposition between the choruses and verses with the bridge and conclusion are extremely jarring.
In the case of “In Undertow”, the juxtaposition helps reinforce the tracks overall narrative of desolation, and presumed rock-bottomness. “Plimsoll Punks” contrastness is a little more head-scratching. The song seems to be focusing on a frustrating, but not damaging communication gap between the protagonist and their friend. But all of a sudden the instrumentation changes and sounds very oceanic and other worldly. What Alvvays is attempting to go for here is unclear. If they were trying to show off their musical abilities in the realm of ambient music they may consider implementing such a stunt on a song that would be more appropriate for such a drastic shift.
Production: the first step on a long journey
Alvvays’ Antisocialites is very volatile from a recording and production standpoint. The reverb on Molly’s vocals are nothing short of stunning. Make sure to sample the closing chorus on “Plimsoll Punks” or the empty broodings on “Dreams Tonite” to absorb the true essence and capabilities of one of Canada’s most talented indie vocalists.
The instrumental layering on this record is an extreme step forward from previous work. “Plimsoll Punks” features an intricate guitar sequence that the old Alvvays would never have attempted. This guitar sequence features layering that lends more depth and color to the piece. Suddenly, this isn’t just another cookie-cutter Alvvays jangle pop piece with a lead guitar, bass, percussion and amateurish thematics. Now, it’s a complex multi-instrumental escape with carefully selected lyrics atop a wall of distorted, artfully arranged guitars that provide a nice bit of grit and somberness.
The main drawbacks in the production deal with slower, more introspective songs. The concluding track “Forget About Life” features Rankin’s vocals front-and-center shining the light on a depressed friend. The instrumentation is very bare, with a distant backing guitar and some slight synth work. Unfortunately, the lack of backing instrumentation makes Rankin’s voice hang and wilt in the atmosphere that the song has created. As the track progresses, the singularity of the vocals make the track seem bland and frankly boring. Alvvays could still have utilized the same instrumental setup on this track while maintaining the theme of the track if they had forgone the reverb. Although the reverb on this track is minimal, the little amount they use makes the track seem impersonal, and it negatively impacts Rankins’ performance. An even more drastic lessening of the reverb would give the track a more intimate and relatable feel.
The recording of “Not My Baby” was the final black eye off of Antisocialites. The track was recorded to intentionally sound rough or poorly produced. The best description of the track’s sound would be for someone to think of a pop song coming out of someone else’s earbuds nearby. The production was so ineffective the instrumentation and vocalizations didn’t truly get the exposure they deserved.
”Lollipop (Ode to Jim)”
“Saved by a Waif”
Other members of the Antisocialites family:
Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out Of This Country
Beach Fossils – Beach Fossils
Best Coast – Crazy For You
Featured image from Bandcamp
On 'Antisocialites', the signature dream pop sound of Alvvays is still there. And yet, the overall sound is where the album progresses the most from their previous album. Thematically, the band continues to talk about love and relationships in a very basic way. Though the brushes with ambient and garage rock genres are appreciated, this experimentation can often lead to inappropriately placed reverb and walls of sound that stop many of these tracks from becoming highlights.