As much mileage as bands have gotten out of the C86 sonic template (from the warm combustibility of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Honey” to the twee-by-numbers of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s debut album), the formula hasn’t really shifted much over the years: lo-fi interpretations of Phil Spector’s wall of sound, swaths of blown-out guitars playing well-worn pop chord progressions, occasional vocal harmonies employed almost solely to earn the inevitable ’60s girl-group comparisons and maybe (okay, definitely) a synth player with librarian glasses. By the time Toronto’s Alvvays, with their stylized name and demure stage presence, check all the boxes, most listeners will have already dismissed them as bargain-bin indie fare. This is a shame, because their self-titled debut isn’t only a treat for the ears, but a worthwhile lesson in self-editing and millennial empathy.
On opener “Adult Diversion,” singer-guitarist Molly Rankin is steeling herself with mixed drinks in order to pursue an object of desire on the subway, and her lyrics only get more forlorn as the album goes on. Real life—relationships, careers, student loans, etc.—is so daunting a task on Alvvays that Rankin is constantly either threatening to “retreat and go back to university” or dedicating herself to finding “comfort in debauchery.” Any moments of levity or romance are almost immediately undercut by some downer sentiment. “Next of Kin” is probably the catchiest song about drowning you’ll hear this year, and “Marry Me, Archie” may sound devotional and tender, but when Rankin says it’s “too late to go out,” yet deems herself “too young to stay in,” it becomes evident that the suggestion of marriage is just a desperate grasp at stability. Luckily, Rankin explores post-collegiate dread with a prickly sense of humor: The inhabitants of these songs are, at their worst, “suffering from a case of sobriety” and, in emotional centerpiece “Party Police,” find a surprisingly real sense of solace in alcohol and sex (here euphemized, in true student fashion, as “biology”).
Though there are moments of frayed musical charm throughout Alvvays, including the irresistible crack in Rankin’s voice during the final chorus of “Party Police” and the so-jangly-it-hurts arpeggios of “Atop a Cake,” it exhibits an unexpected level of versatility for a debut: Not all C86 acolytes could manage a dreamy shoegaze waltz (“Dives”) and a semi-psychedelic sci-fi tale that wouldn’t feel out of place during the more bummed-out moments of Tame Impala’s Lonerism (“Red Planet”) in the course of just 32 minutes. Alvvays may be another indie-pop band, but they’re not just another indie-pop band. They’re former bedroom romantics combating the unfortunate realities of independent living the best way they know how: through frantic scrambles for companionship, and maybe a couple of cocktails to take the edge off.