So, my last music review probably made it clear that I listen to a fair amount of country music, but I also listen to plenty of pop as well. And one of the oddities that I’ve noticed over several years of observing the Billboard Hot 100 is that, well, Summer’s not always a season of Summer songs. The cliche is that there will be a ton of up-tempo dance jams starting every June, but sometimes the opposite happens, and the pop charts turn to downbeat mush instead.
This was probably most true back in the Summer of 2014, when Iggy Azalea’s Fancy was the number one song in the country. That tedious four-note bass line was inescapable, despite it being a terrible foundation for any song, let alone something to enjoy the sunshine in. Those were grim days, so I count myself lucky that a blog I follow happened to drop a review of an obscure Canadian retro-surf act. And that review was very positive, so I found myself listening to the debut from the band Alvvays. Yes, those two v’s make a w, by the way.
And yes, that self-titled debut was a damn solid record. Songs like Atop a Cake and Next of Kin were exactly the burst of upbeat energy I was looking for at the time. More impressively, the band had the songwriting chops to back up their gorgeous melodies, telling some downright fascinating stories that showed some real darkness beneath the sunny B-52’s-esque instrumentals. All in all, that debut was easily one of the best pop albums of 2014, bar none, and it left me looking forward to see where they would take their sound in the future.
Well, the future is here, as the Canadian band have finally dropped their sophomore album, Antisocialites. I listened to and liked the three songs that released in advance of the album, so I got the whole thing on Friday and have had it on repeat since then. So, does it hold up to their excellent debut?
Well, that’s a complicated question, to be totally honest. What isn’t complicated is that this is still a great album and definitely worth your time. Antisocialites shows Alvvays tightening their retro sound even further, and delivering better melodic hooks than ever before. At the same time, I’m not quite sure the narrative ambition is there in the same way as their last release. The level of songwriting detail is still impressive, but the subject matter feels more limited and less subversive. All in all, I’m inclined to call this a bit of a lateral move.
Like last time, let’s start with the production. If you have listened to their first album, then you’ll see that their sound hasn’t changed a whole lot on this project, with the same combination of jangling 80’s alt-rock and 60’s surf music undergirding these songs. Of course, that’s a fair description of a lot of modern indie rock acts, from M-83 to Beach House. What sets Alvvays apart from their peers is a fantastic gift for striking melodies that shined on their last album and is even more accentuated here. The hooks on songs like Plimsoll Punks, My Type, Lollipop (Ode for Jim), and Saved by a Waif will stick in your head for days.
That said, I noticed one detail that has changed in the production compared to their old album is the distortion. On their debut, Alvvays had these more washed-out guitar tones and fuzzy, low-fi production, and none of the polish of their most obvious inspiration, the B-52’s. Here on Antisocialites, the sound is a fair bit crisper and less distorted, especially on songs like Plimsoll Punks or Dreams Tonite. That’s not to say that distortion is gone, but it often seems relegated to the beginning or ending of tracks like Hey (where they seem to have specifically appropriated A Flock of Seagulls), Lollipop or the album closer, Forget About Life. The album actually ends with the instruments coming to a warbling halt and radio static kicking in. Regardless of these minor stylistic changes, I’d still call this album exceptionally well-produced, building on and accentuating their strengths and creating a set of fantastic summer songs.
Of course, what really caught me off-guard about Alvvays when I first listened to them was the ambition and subtlety in their writing, so it’s worth addressing that as well. And on some level, they’ve kept up their standards here, too. Lead singer Molly Rankin is great at capturing a wide range of emotions, both in her singing and the songwriting itself. The lyrics on Alvvays songs are always vividly detailed, from the deeply uncomfortable confrontation on In Undertow, where she and her lover try to convey frustrations that they can’t quite put into words, to the reckless and utterly hilarious partying on Your Type, to the throwbacks to classic Punk icons on Lollipop, and so on. These songs are all expertly written and extremely precise in their focus. So, why am I unsatisfied?
Well, the problem I have is more with the broader theme of this album. Alvvays’ self-titled was defiantly unique thanks to its insightful look at millennial social anxieties, and the struggle of a generation trying to reconcile ironic detachment with that yearning for real emotional commitment. The band spared no effort in showing the bad decisions that could result from that dissonance, and the consequences of those decisions. By contrast…Antisocialites is, well, the breakup album. Clever construction can only do so much to conceal this – Not Your Baby has some nice metaphors, but it’s basically Since U Been Gone by Kelly Clarkson minus that song’s cathartic fury. There just doesn’t seem to be a cogent arc on this album like on their debut.
Now, that’s hardly a dealbreaker by itself, but it does mean that instead of a strict narrative, we instead get an exploration of the various moods that surround a failing relationship. And these still make for some powerful stuff by themselves. In Undertow reminds us of the subversiveness of Alvvays’ use of surf music – in this band’s songs, water is something to dread – where the titular undertow represents the inexorable currents of time and incompatibility pulling two people apart. Dreams Tonite tries to recapture some of the old relationship’s magic even as it’s slipping away from memory. And Already Gone may be the biggest gut-punch here, with its story of a missed connection, the draining pool, and the end of Summer. Rankin ends the song despairing of ever recapturing that moment ever again. The magic is lost.
Thankfully, there is still room for optimism and hope amidst the gloom on this album. Lollipop is a more upbeat tune about the heady rush of a new relationship, and Saved by a Waif does one better by providing the hope that even a flagging love can be reinvigorated. Finally, there’s that album closer, Forget About Life, where Rankin finally lets go of the dread of the water and the astrological superstitions of previous songs, and resolves to live in the present. It wraps things up with a vestige of inner peace attained finally.
So, all in all, I still found Antisocialites to be a very good indie rock album. It’s got some of the best melodies I’ve heard in 2017, along with intelligent writing and an emotive frontwoman who can make you laugh, cry, and regain your sense of comfort and hope over the course of the album. I still wish it had the same subversiveness and scope as their last album, but what’s here is still done well, so I’ll give it an 8/10, and a recommendation. If you’re still wanting to hear some good summer songs this fall, then turn on Antisocialites and forget about life a while. You won’t regret it.
Recommended tracks: In Undertow, Dreams Tonite, Plimsoll Punks, Lollipop (Ode to Jim), Already Gone, Forget About Life
Weakest Track: Not My Baby