Alvvays is, on paper, not that remarkable: A five-piece band from Canada with jangling melodies and college radio play could easily pass like a blip on the indie rock radar. But the band’s bleary-eyed, lush sound elides perfectly into frontwoman Molly Rankin’s rounded vowels, and the effect of listening to the band’s first album is like diving into a pool of sun-warmed water; a state of half-dreaming perfectly summed up in songs like “Ones Who Love You” and yearning anthem “Party Police.”
At a recent show at Los Angeles’s Echoplex, Alvvays (pronounced, if it’s not clear, as “Always”) took the stage a chorus of high screams and bro-ish roars. The band’s debut dropped in 2014, which gave time for dedicated fans to learn the words to every song, and to actually have patience for all-new material. When she wasn’t singing, Rankin served as the band’s MC and as the living personification of the word “Gosh!,” riffing with guitarist Alec O’Hanley and teasing keyboardist Kerri MacLellan while disparaging National Lampoon’s Vacation.
But oh, when she sings: Rankin’s voice reminds me of Ellie Goulding’s, in that both singers’ voices seem to rest just above whatever music they’re singing over. For most of debut album Alvvays’ tracks, this sends listeners into a happy fog, but on their newer songs, the band’s emoting punk spirit is channeled into more high energy tracks; one in particular (about never being on time) stands out for Rankin’s supernatural ability to hit her notes right at their hearts.
Along with covers of Camera Obscura’s “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken” and The Hummingbirds’ “Alimony,” both tour staples (the latter closed off their set), the band’s show was both a celebration of their debut triumph and a peek at what’s to come. It also served as a reminder that, though the state of women in music is oft debated and analyzed, there is a model for both acknowledging gender as a component of public performance while not letting it define a person, or a group’s, entire persona.
Female singers who have more masculine-coded voices (Cat Power and Janis Joplin immediately come to mind) are oftentimes lauded by straight men, who instinctively connect or acquiesce to it more. (Think of the many pop culture seductresses’ purring, sensual lows.) It’s the inverse of the phenomenon in which female-coded high voices, like those of many of pop’s major stars (oftentimes referred to by the double-edged sword moniker “divas”), are marginalized as the purview of only female or gay male listeners.
Rankin’s voice is undeniably feminine and doesn’t have that much edge to it; she has those Canadian vowels, which don’t take over her enunciation but certainly add to the rounded quality of her voice. She doesn’t sound sexy or sultry, nor does she skew hard into low and jagged and yowling. Instead, her voice, both recorded and performed, has a deeply intimate quality, like she’s permanently performing in her local scrappy venue. (It’s a quality most matched, weirdly enough, with rising R&B star Tinashe’s Amethyst mixtape.)
She’s far from the only female vocalist whose voice occupies the middle ground between performed feminine extremes, but combined with the lo-fi melancholia of the band’s music (the chorus of “Party Police” in particular; “You don’t have to leave / You could just stay here with me”), she serves as the kind of inner YA narrator that men in indie rock have historically had a monopoly on. The sensitive musings of artists like Nick Drake and Elliott Smith have in common, along with their whiteness, a direct line to a particular kind of male adolescence, or perhaps the right word is more “liminal-ness,” as more and more young people continue to live suspended between childhood and “proper” adulthood.
Alvvays provides the natural counterpart to, or expansion of, that, picking up the torch that was only fairly recently lit by artists as disparate yet in conversation (literally and not) with each other as Rilo Kiley/Jenny Lewis and, in her own maudlin way, Lana Del Rey. (Appropriate companion reading: Critic Lindsay Zoladz’s excellent essay on, among other things, female angst for Pitchfork.) Genre and moment contemporaries like the verbally dexterous Speedy Ortiz, with frontwoman Sadie Dupuis, all-or-nothing emoting Mitski, and laidback stoner Colleen Green are all integral parts of the new leading edge of female-guided, introspective rock. These women are not anomalies, and exist as part of a rich, though woefully under-spotlighted, history of women in rock. Through them, we get to hear something familiar: a story told a thousand times before, but lit from within with new, vital voices.
Photo Credit: Lilian Min