Alvvays On The Chaos That Inspired ‘Blue Rev’
An almost-comical string of mishaps plagued Alvvays while making their third album.
There weren’t just pandemic-era lockdowns, but also stolen demos, a replaced rhythm section and a flooded basement. But even when the Toronto noise-pop band found themselves scattered by border closures and suffering other setbacks, it just gave them more time to explore the vivid spray of ideas that wound up populating their latest album, Blue Rev — released in October 2022.
“There are a lot of weird ideas that started out as just throwing something against the wall,” says lead singer/guitarist Molly Rankin over Zoom from a hotel in Taipei, where the band are beginning an Asian tour. “We started recording and then were sent home to Canada because of all the shutdowns. So we had another year, basically, to record and write. A lot of the chopped-up, more chaotic ideas on the record are ones that came after that.”
Some of those chaotic ideas include sudden drops and shifts in songs like ‘Pharmacist’, ‘After the Earthquake’ and ‘Very Online Guy’, in which swathes of saturated effects give way to serene patches or other unexpected byways. Recalling certain jarring twists in commercial pop and even hyperpop, those tactics ratchet up the musical drama on a record that’s already cascading with additional dimensions. Working in Los Angeles with Canadian producer Shawn Everett (The Killers, The War on Drugs), Alvvays created a bracing new level of engagement for their contrast-rich indie pop. “Yeah, there were a lot of tracks in those sessions,” Molly admits with a laugh.
Named for a particular flavour of sugary Canadian alcopop, Blue Rev represents a dizzying jump in scope and depth from 2017’s Antisocialites, which was equally acclaimed but more modest and linear by comparison. It also introduces drummer Sheridan Riley and bassist Abbey Blackwell, who joined the existing line-up of Molly, keyboardist Kerri MacLellan and lead guitarist Alec O’Hanley. The album won Alvvays their second consecutive Juno Award — the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys — for Alternative Album of the Year and now sees them heading back to Australia for Meredith Music Festival and several sold-out sideshows.
Yet as much as Blue Rev levels up the band’s sound, Molly notes that their live show was already intricately mapped out based on the first two records. Even the early breakout ‘Archie, Marry Me’ from their 2014 self-titled debut had enough casual layers and soaring vocals to foreshadow more elaborate stage setups. These days, Kerri alone is usually doing at least three or four different things live at any given time.
“It took a long time to build all the different layers [live],” Molly says. “We’re a pretty loud band and have a lot of in-and-out, abrasive textures. That’s something that we’ve pretty much always done. I think maybe just on this album it translated a little bit more.”
The influence of shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine and Ride seems to loom larger over Blue Rev, but Rankin didn’t exactly grow up on that music. As Kerri’s neighbour and childhood friend on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, Molly was slower to get into alternative music than her eventual bandmate, only discovering foundational acts like Sonic Youth, The Replacements and The Smiths by the age of 20.
“As far as shoegaze goes,” she adds, “I am such a huge fan of menacing guitars. That definitely found its way into our recordings. That just happened to be what Alec and I were really drawn to. And different types of [cranked-up] amps happened to work really well with the specific songs we were writing.” Molly still collaborates closely with Alec on guitar solos, often just singing a melody in the studio that she or he then translates to the fretboard. “I have a lot of ideas that just swim around in my head for a couple years before I ever learn how to play it on guitar,” she says
Despite being slower and sweeter overall, ‘Tile By Tile’ boasts just such a vocal melody that morphed into a “monstrous” guitar solo, as Molly puts it. Other times she might reference the style of a specific guitarist for Alec, such as the ornate jangle of Maurice Deebank from the cult English band Felt. The fact that so many of those breakout parts —including Kerri’s sidelong keyboard flourishes — enter and exit just as quickly makes them all the more exciting, especially when songs are kept to around three minutes each.
“We definitely have an agenda with making songs,” says Molly. “I don’t think we’re really the type of band that can just vamp and see where the idea takes up. We very much have a structure. You can play within those structures or chop them up and try new things, but I don’t see us making a seven-minute song any time soon.”
Another key textural element in Alvvays is Molly’s lyrics, which wring enduring wryness out of dismissive lines about serious life choices. ‘Archie, Marry Me’ mentions the nightly impulse to “scour the streets for trouble” amid its deadpan plea for matrimony, while ‘Forget About Life’ makes a similar case for romantic abandon. They may not be autobiographical, but Blue Rev tracks like ‘Easy on Your Own?’ and ‘Belinda Says’ sum up the confounding uncertainties of adulthood, respectively mentioning dropping out of college and moving to the country to have a baby and wait tables. Even more playful word combinations —‘Pomeranian Spinster’, ‘Lottery Noises’ — prove to be rewardingly evocative.
“It’s really fun to just come up with phrases you haven’t heard before,” Molly explains. “And just creating little visions for people, even before entering the song. But it’s all just this weird little puzzle, and you pick away at it. Sometimes you don’t really know what the song is about until it’s finished. Sometimes you never know.”
After that tumultuous five-year gap between Antisocialites and Blue Rev, has the band started working on a follow-up yet? Molly says they are perpetually tinkering away, yet she likens the idea of making the next record to the task of dragging a mammoth steamboat over a mountain in the 1982 film Fitzcarraldo. For now, though, there’s this victory lap to savour for a little while longer.
“It does feel really nice for everything that happened in the lead-up to this album to be behind us,” says Molly. “And just to be playing the songs, and for them to be out in the world.”
Alvvays’ new album Blue Rev is out now through Polyvinyl/[PIAS] Australia. Alvvays are touring Australia during December. You can learn more here.
Doug Wallen is a freelance journalist, radio presenter and band booker based in Beechworth, Victoria.