Revved Up with Alvvays
Back in the 1980s, two musical genres emerged at about the same time called dream pop and shoegazer. Both were built on a foundation of the pop song – tuneful and with harmonies – but drenched in jangly waves of guitar noise. They were similar enough that it was easy to confuse bands from one genre as belonging to the other. The main difference between the genres was how that noise was used. Dream pop used jangly guitars to create otherworldly soundscapes that were then paired with sweet, ethereal vocals. Shoegazer cranked up the noise until it became harsh, making it a counterpoint to the pop song underneath.
Some bands were easier to classify. The Cocteau Twins were so ethereal that it was obvious that they were dream pop; The Jesus and Mary Chain so loud, so full of feedback, that they simply had to be shoegazer. Lush, however, bridged both worlds. The sweet harmonies overshadowed the layered, jangle of loud and at time harsh guitar noise. This is the middle space between the two genres into which Alvvays has stepped with their latest album, Blue Rev.
Blue Rev begins with “Pharmacist”. It is a wave of noise over what would otherwise be a typical indie pop song; The vocals and harmonies are often drowned out by the noise. That’s fine, though, because the noise helps producing an emotional gut punch. There is a twist, however, when the guitars abruptly stop creating a jarring bridge. This type of transition is something often seen in shoegazer songs. Alvvays changes up the mix with “Easy on Your Own.” This song is much more like dream pop. The vocals are delicate, and the layers of guitar underpin, rather than overwhelm, the vocals.
Pretty soon, the album finds the balance between the two extremes and becomes more like Lush. “After The Earthquake” is faster paced, more balanced between pop song and noise. It could easily be mistaken for a Lush song from the early 90’s. “Tom Verlaine”, clearly a reference to the lead singer of the iconic new Wave band Television, is also Lush-ish with vocals more upfront and noise underneath. This mix of noise and pop continues throughout the album with songs such as “Velveteen”, “Pomeranian Spinster” (though this has some punk elements, not uncommon for shoegazer), “Belinda Says”, and “Lottery Noises”.
There are times when Alvvays shifts into an adjacent space – jangle pop. The song “Pressed” starts with an initial blast of jangly guitar that is almost Smiths in nature. I swear I hear a riff pulled from “William, It Was Really Nothing” in amongst the guitar noise . “Many Mirrors” is similarly jangle pop, reminding me of REM’s “Don’t Go Down to Rockville”.
There are a few outlier songs on the album as well. “Tile by Tile” is that kind of twee, dull, indie pop that makes serious music listeners gag. Twee can be fun but less so when it’s this pretentious. “Bored in Britain” is the type of boring kiddie rock that only appeals to tweens or people who were emo in high school and secretly wish they still were. This is the kind of song that is too long at 3 minutes.
These few missteps don’t significantly mar what is an otherwise great album. Yes, it lacks a killer song like “Archie, Marry Me” from their first album. Blue Rev doesn’t need that kind of anchor. Instead, it’s the kind of album you put on and listen to in its entirety, in order. There are so few “listening” albums these days; Most are just collections of singles to be picked apart into playlists. It is refreshing to see an album crafted as well as Blue Rev.