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Alvays, Slow Pulp
Arcata Theater Lounge
Alvvays never intended to take five years to complete her third album, the edgy jaunt that is the obsessively loveable Blue Rev. Indeed, shortly after the release of 2017’s Antisocialites, the band began writing and editing their first parts, this stunning second album that confirmed the Toronto quintet’s status at the forefront of a new generation of victorious and whip-smart indie rock.
Global lockdowns notwithstanding, these sessions have affected both ordinary and totally unforeseen circumstances. Alvvays toured more than expected, a surefire break for a band that doesn’t write on the go. A vigilant thief then broke into singer Molly Rankin’s apartment and stole a recorder full of demos a day before a basement flood ruined almost all of the band’s equipment. They subsequently lost a rhythm section and were unable to rehearse for months with their masterful newcomer, drummer Sheridan Riley and bassist Abbey Blackwell, due to border closures.
Well worth the five-year wait, at least: Blue Rev doesn’t simply reaffirm what was always great about Alvvays, it reinvents it. They have never been better in parts and sum. There are 14 songs on Blue Rev, making it not only the longest Alvvays album, but also the most harmonically rich and lyrically provocative.
There are new aggressive moments here – the happy and snarling guitar solo at the heart of opener “Pharmacist” or the explosive cacophony near the middle of “Many Mirrors”. And there are some beautiful spans too – the church organ fantasy of “Fourth Figure” or the blue sky bridge of “Belinda Says”. But Blue Rev’s power and magic stems from Alvvays’ ability to bridge perceived binaries, fusing elements that appear diametrically opposed in individual songs – cynicism and empathy, anger and play, clatter and melody, the soft and the steely. The glowing poser kiss of Velveteen, the lovesick confusion of Tile by Tile, the panicked but somehow comforting rush of After the Earthquake.
Blue Rev’s songs thrive on immediacy and complexity, so good on first listen that subsequent spins where you hear all the details are inevitable.
This perfectly matched sound stems from an unorthodox – and, for Alvvays, completely surprising – recording process unlike anything they’ve ever done. Alvvays are fans of sophisticated demos, creating maps of new tunes so complete they might as well have topographical contour lines.
But in October 2021, when they arrived at a Los Angeles studio with fellow Canadian Shawn Everett, he urged them to forget the careful planning they had done and just play the stuff straight to tape. On the second day, they ripped Blue Rev from front to back twice, resting only 15 seconds between songs and only 30 minutes between takes of an entire album. And then, as Everett has done on recent The War on Drugs and Kacey Musgraves albums, he spent an obsessive time with Alvvays to fill in the cracks, roughen the surfaces, and mix the results. This hybrid approach allowed the band to take the very heart of each song and then add texture and depth to it. For example, notice how “Tom Verlaine” erupts into a nervous jingle; Then admire the drums and drum machines bouncing against each other
Harmonies that criss-cross and the guitar stacks that rise between riff and hiss, subtle but essential layers that reveal themselves on the beat.
Every element of Alvvays has improved over the long hiatus between albums: Riley is a classic drummer’s dynamo with the power of a rock deity and the finesse of a jazz pedigree. Her roommate, sought-after bassist Blackwell, finds the center of a song and anchors it. Keyboardist Kerri MacLellan joined Rankin and guitarist Alec O’Hanley to write more this time, reinforcing the band’s collective quest to break patterns heard on their first two albums.
The results are unquestionable: Blue Rev has more twists and turns and surprises than Alvvays’ accumulated past, and the band seem to be reveling in the opportunities they have taken. This record is fun and often funny, from the hilarious reply-guy bash of “Very Online Guy” to the parodic grind of “Pomeranian Spinster.”
Alvvays’ self-titled debut, released when much of the band were still in their early 20s, offered speculation about a distant future – marriage, professionalism, interplanetary citizenship. Anti-socialists struggled with the afflictions of the now, particularly the fears of slowly approaching adulthood. Named after the sugary alcoholic beverage Rankin and MacLellan drank as teenagers in rural Cape Breton, Blue Rev looks both to this country’s past and an uncertain world ahead, and reckoning with what we lose when we make a choice meet about what we will want.
The spinster with her Pomeranians or Belinda with her babies? The boy fleeing Bristol by train, or the loyalist stunned to return old friends? “How can I tell if this is stagnation or change?” Rankin sings during the first verse of the plaintive and infectious “Easy on Your Own?” In that moment, she tightens the ties between past, present and future to answer difficult questions about it to ask who we will become and how. Sure, it’s a few years later than expected, but the answer for Alvvays is actually quite simple: They’ve gradually transformed themselves and, on Blue Rev, have grown into one of the most complete and compelling rock bands of their generation.