Alvvays drop its fuzz with clean, dream-pop statement ‘Antisocialites’

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Since the release of its debut self-titled album in 2014, Toronto indie-pop outfit Alvvays has been anything but antisocial. The group has packed the three years between its first release and its latest with appearances at some of the largest festivals around — including Glastonbury and Coachella — rendering the release of Antisocialites on Friday ironic in a way that perfectly fits the wealth of contradictions the group weaves into its music.

On Alvvays, lead singer Molly Rankin’s vocals pulsate through reverb worthy of a stadium while fuzzy, lo-fi guitars trade riffs with each other, layering into a nostalgic, dreamlike blanket. Sonically, it’s like stepping out of the doors of the gym during the slow song at high school prom — a tinge of heartache at your lack of a date as the echoes of the song worm their way through the gym’s walls, ever so muted. Not, of course, like I’m speaking from personal experience or anything absurd like that.

A name like Antisocialites evokes, perhaps, a too-cool group of kids who stayed home from prom in the first place. But far from distant, everything about this album’s production — from Rankin’s vocals to Alec O’Hanley’s guitar, Kerri MacLellan’s keyboards and Brian Murphy’s bass — is pushed forward with a presence that’s in a lot of ways surprising. The lo-fi haze around the band’s music has, for the most part, lifted to reveal a happy-go-lucky mix of dream-pop and indie-rock.

Thankfully — and this isn’t always the case — the distortions imparted by that DIY production style weren’t actually critical to our enjoyment of Rankin’s melodies. Antisocialites still presents us with isolated elements of the band’s past, in the guitars that open “Your Type” and in the extra echos on “Not My Baby,” for example.

It’s a bold move, to juxtapose these callbacks with the piercingly clear guitar notes that open “Already Gone” or “Dreams Tonite” — which lift Rankin’s voice all the way to the top of the mix, continuing to float as the bass kicks in 50 seconds into the song. For a lesser album, the referencing would only remind us what we were missing. But the new soundscape here fits the band well.

Also refreshing is the spirited jumps in tempo between softer, ‘80s-styled ballads and dance numbers like “Saved By A Waif,” which chugs along pleasantly. Rankin recedes a bit in this track, almost like another instrument in the tapestry, her echoes flowing over her lyrics as the synths and guitars swell to overpower her.

And yet, there’s a nagging sensation that something is missing here. The frank, aching directness of “Archie, Marry Me” on Alvvays really reached through the walls of guitar to tug at our heartstrings. Rankin’s soaring vocal line in “Party Police” — “You don’t have to leave, you could just stay here with me / Forget all the party police, we can find comfort in debauchery” — complements the descending chordal structure it sits on with that je ne sais quoi that makes us incredulous someone could have been considering leaving in the first place.

Antisocialites is nothing if not fun, but it also finds itself stepping back a little bit. Its subject matter hasn’t drastically changed from that of Alvvays, but it has become, almost paradoxically, more filtered and inscrutable as the production of the music itself has grown clearer. The tone Alvvays puts out here is one of late-stage teenagers (or “Plimsoll Punks,” perhaps) who have decided the emotion they feel is nonchalance. Rankin and Co. are allowed to feel that, but it leaves us wanting a little bit more in the way of connection.

Still, it’s impressive that Alvvays has managed to emerge with an instrumentation that screams of standard dream-pop while also skirting around it, hanging onto something about that blown-out indie-rock sound that leaves the band feeling both of, and apart from, the genres it dips into. The vein the group has found is seemingly one wider than it might purport at first glance.

The album concludes, in “Forget About Life,” with a wonky, modulated note that cuts into static and feedback. The inclusion of a tangible relic of the recording process evokes conscious consideration of that recording process itself — it’s a neat, self-reflexive way of wrapping an album for a band whose primary evolution has been in the production process rather than instrumentation or style. But it also serves as a reminder that the album it follows, Alvvays — for all its instrumental murkiness — actually let us in. It’s an album imbued with an emotional vulnerability that finds itself sorely missed now — we can only hope that in the future, Alvvays will bring us music with the clarity of feeling of its first album and the clarity of sound of its second.

Imad Pasha covers music. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @prappleizer.

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