Smile Politely

Alvvays has that teen feeling

“Marry Me, Archie,” the charming single from Canadian pop group Alvvays, wants to have it both ways. The song drips with nostalgia for a simple, teenage kind of heartache, while gently mocking the materialistic trappings of modern weddings. The end result is a self-aware bundle of emotion. “Too late to go out / too young to stay in” lead singer Molly Rankin opines over tremble-heavy distorted guitars, in the song’s most immediate line. Her delivery has an edge to it that could be plaintive or snide, or possibly both at once. It falls midway between tongue-in-cheek and heart-on-sleeve, which is the perfect feeling for a song that’s tailor-made to be jangle-pop classic.

The fact that Alvvays name-checks Archie (yes, Archie Andrews of Riverdale, the tousled redhead of “Sugar Sugar” and grocery-store comics fame) on their biggest single is no accident. The band appropriates and repurposes classic sounds with far too much care for it to be purely ironic. Their sense of nostalgia is used as a salve for anguish and longing. Consider that Archie’s first appearance was in Pep Comics #22, published in December of 1941, just as Pearl Harbor was being bombed. Archie’s biggest problems may be dealing with dating troubles and getting his car to run, but the teen cartoon star rose to fame as a paragon of all-American goodness in a time of war and horror. The simplicity and honesty that the symbol of Archie radiates is what Alvvays want to both evoke and play against. They use the juxtaposition to express a very modern feeling of isolation and despair in the tones of classic pop.

While the band does share in Archie’s small-town roots, Alvvays is less “all-American” and more “all-North American.” All five members hail from Canada’s Maritimes, three from Prince Edward Island and two from Cape Breton, a 4,000 square mile island with around half the population of Champaign County. They formed Alvvays in Toronto in 2011, and released their eponymous debut album in 2014. (The band’s name is pronounced the same as “Always”; they chose the spelling to avoid conflict with an obscure British pop group.)

Their song “Party Police” captures the distance and longing of growing up in a remote place, through the lens of a failing relationship. It’s a song about struggling to get over, or even express, emotional distance. Rankin’s vocals hit their most plaintive notes, reaching into a desperate falsetto in the final chorus, as she begs “You don’t have to leave, you could just stay here with me.” It’s a doomed appeal, or at least the melancholy lead guitar line gives off that feeling, and Rankin draws out every ounce of beauty from the sense of failure.

The song feels timeless, rooted in a pop tradition that winds back through generations of young adults strapping on guitars and belting out quick catchy harmonies. You can hear traces of 80s indie-rock jangle, especially via Irish and UK bands like the Cranberries, the Vaselines, and the Primitives. But Rankin’s singing has a disarming quality that hearkens more to teen pop than rock, more the Shirelles than the Beatles, more Tiffany than R.E.M.

Their Pygmalion set is a fantastic chance to catch Alvvays at a critical moment in the band’s career. Their self-titled release debuted at #1 on the U.S. college charts, and their sophomore album is due out at an undefined point in the next few months. You can expect to hear unreleased songs; the band tried out several at Coachella and other festivals earlier this summer. Alvvays’ new songs, like “Hey,” “Dreams,” and “Your Type,” continue and refine the nuanced pop revivalism of their debut. They also show off a more deft, confident level of songwriting. (I won’t include links, since none of these songs have been officially released, but you can find them easily. They’re worth checking out.) “Not My Baby” uses the classic kick drum rhythm of “Be My Baby” along with fantastic guitar riffs to give the Ronettes’ classic a darker sequel. And strongest of all is “I Hate Your New Haircut,” which finds the perfect balance to the band’s signature blend of energy and melancholy.

Archie comics were rebooted in 2015, with new artists putting a more modern spin on the characters. The churn of pop culture can start to feel like an eternal recurrence: the same elements keep getting recontextualized for a new generation, finding new forms for a new audience. But the teen pop sounds mined by Alvvays are especially evergreen. There’s always room for a new take on the universal emotions of the teenage feeling, as long as it’s pulled off with brains and heart. A similar approach to reinvigorating pop formulas has catapulted all-caps bands like HAIM and CHVRCHES to Hunger Games soundtrack-level fame. Judging by the potential hinted at in their new songs, Alvvays is a band on the cusp of blowing up big. Catch them at Pygmalion while you can.


Alvvays is playing the Pygmalion Festival this Thursday, Sept. 23rd, at Krannert Center, from 10:45 – midnight. Visit the website for more information and to purchase tickets.

About the Author

Nathaniel Forsythe is a writer living in Champaign. He has never been busted by the party police, because he alvvays keeps the music at a reasonable volume.

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