The backstory provided by bands, record labels and/or publicists alongside a new album often provides context for the work or some interesting details about the recording process. Rarely, however, does said marketing copy get to the core of the material as effectively as it does for Blue Rev, the new album from the Toronto, Ontario, quintet Alvvays.
The setup: Alvvays’ first two full-lengths—2014’s self-titled and 2017’s Antisocialites—are archetypal examples of 21st-century indie pop, built around jangling electric guitars and melancholy, a pinch of punk spirit, the sheen of nostalgia and Molly Rankin’s effortlessly enduring vocal melodies. This was one of those bands that seemed to arrive fully formed, a testament to not only their talent, but also their commitment to preparation. “Alvvays are fans of fastidious demos,” the band’s official bio says, “making maps of new tunes so complete they might as well have topographical contour lines.”
For their long-awaited third album, however, producer Shawn Everett “urged them to forget the careful planning they’d done and just play the stuff, straight to tape.”
It turns out this is not just a punchy line in a press release, but also an explanation of exactly why Blue Rev captures Alvvays as they have always existed onstage: more urgent, more dense and noisier, cocooned in distorted guitars and smeared with synthesizers. Live, Rankin plays with a saboteur’s twinkle in her eye; Blue Rev brings that twinkle to life.
To be clear, Alvvays are not suddenly a harsh noise band. The 14 songs on the new album still crackle and pop, and there are some quiet, slow tracks, too. But the band waste no time making clear their intention to rough things up a bit, as opening track “Pharmacist” takes about six seconds to introduce a thick wall of guitar distortion that all but buries Rankin’s breathy lyrics about being stuck in neutral. Two minutes later, someone—presumably Rankin or her co-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist Alec O’Hanley—takes a perfectly good guitar solo and gnarls it beyond recognition, just for a few seconds.
Then in “Easy On Your Own?,” Rankin emerges from a tangle of radio-squelch and guitar chug to deliver a stanza that neatly blurs the lines between a floundering relationship and the drudgery of our current times:
I gauge whether this is stasis or change
Fill out the requirements on the page and burn out before you can get paid
’Cause we’re always crawling in monochromatic hallways
Dream we pull a 180° someday
Elsewhere, Alvvays try on pulsing, luxurious new wave (“Velveteen”), crank up the crunch on a perfect pop song (“Belinda Says”) and employ guitar wobble in “Tom Verlaine” that’s worthy of the song’s namesake. The pedal-to-the-metal “Pomeranian Spinster” is as punky as this band have been so far (including some delightfully snotty Rankin vocals), while “Very Online Guy”—with its danceable beat, glittery hooks and funny lines (“Leave your location on and just follow the buzz”)—may be trending on TikTok by the time you read this.
Blue Rev has its share of more conventional Alvvays bangers, as well. There’s the serrated jangle of “After the Earthquake,” the propulsive rhythm and expansive chorus of “Pressed” and the gauzy ’80s feel of “Many Mirrors” (which resembles Naked Eyes’ 1983 hit “Always Something There to Remind Me” at a few points). These are all top-shelf tunes, and they serve as evidence that Rankin and O’Hanley are among the best pop-song writers working today. They could, presumably, fill Alvvays albums with them from wall to wall, if they wanted.
Instead, they seem to be leaning more and more into their noisier, more experimental interests, and not by accident. “I do feel like every record is a tiny miracle that I was able to write the songs and we could record them,” Rankin told Stereogum in an interview this week, “and we could make them sound as good as we wanted them to, or as bad as we wanted them to.”
Luckily, they don’t have to choose one or the other. And with the release of the brilliant and boisterous Blue Rev, neither do we.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.