Ghost vvorld

Toronto group Alvvays channel Daniel Clowes-style neurosis through sugary pop

2014 has been a big year for Alvvays. The Toronto-by-way-of-Cape-Breton band’s self-titled debut, released in July, has been praised by such media outlets as Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone and Pitchfork.

Singer Molly Rankin is surprised the album has touched such a nerve with critics and audiences. “We didn’t have any expectation of it reaching beyond our immediate group of friends,” she says. “Maybe it’s a combination of dark lyrics meeting pop? We’re pretty picky about our songs. Maybe that’s why the album only has nine songs.”

Short but sweet, the album is an indie-pop dreamscape of airy vocals, jingle-jangle arpeggios and surf-tinged riffs, all awash in warm synth fuzz. The record was produced by Calgary musician/animator/weirdo Chad VanGaalen, whose brand of folky psychosis could be seen as being at odds with Alvvays’s sound. However, Rankin said the pairing was a natural fit.

“I was a big fan of his records and his art but also Women records as well,” Rankin says, referring to the now-defunct Calgary band whose records VanGaalen produced. “I was a huge fan of his guitar tones. I like his attention to vocals. He can get loud and bizarre at times, but the vocals are always very prominent. I also find that his percussive instincts are very cool.”

The band’s vocal-centric pop sensibility is essential in shaping it’s sound. “I feel like we don’t do a whole lot of dissonant ambient stuff,” the singer says. “We all have a strong allegiance to the idea of the song. The boys (guitarist Alec O’Hanley, bassist Brian Murphy and drummer Phil MacIsaac) all grew up idolizing Sloan and Thrush Hermit and a lot of the ‘90s Halifax scene, but we all really love pop music. But ‘pop’ is a dangerous thing to get into, because you sort of have a target on your back.”

Alvvays is far from a straightforward pop group. Their deceptively sunshiny sound is contrasted with deeply vulnerable lyrics, with subjects ranging from casual stalking to crippling codependency. Rankin says that the potentially confessional nature of the lyrics weren’t ever a cause for personal concern.

“I don’t think you can go into something and ever worry about what people can think,” she says. “I think that would be counterproductive. It wasn’t based on my own experiences, but maybe subconsciously my energy betrays that sort of mentality. The sentiment is still very real, but I don’t have any crazy relationships in my past or anything.”

Rankin says her lyrical influences are more literary than personal. “I’m really into graphic novels, and a lot of the ones I like are about these sad, pathetic, solitary characters who wander around alone most of the time, who are very much inside their own heads. Anything by Chris Ware is extremely bleak, but the most beautiful thing. Daniel Clowes. It’s all sort of humorous to me. The lyrics are all meant to be taken lightheartedly.”

The group plays the West End Cultural Centre on Sept. 23 with hardcore vets Fucked Up, a promising if admittedly unusual billing. 

“People have been asking if I plan on shaving my head,” Rankin says, laughing.

Published in Volume 69, Number 3 of The Uniter (September 17, 2014)

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