Alvvays, Jangle Pop and The Relevance of Guitar Music

It’s part and parcel for the trajectory of a ‘young band’ to haul around from place to place as part of a never-ending tour. The archetypal young band needs to tour relentlessly in order to break into international markets, as well as solidify the ones they’ve established back home. In a sense, the band needs to hawk their sound and image- their brand- in order to keep their nascent career afloat.

Concurrently, the imposed pressure and cyclicality of playing the same songs night after night is not necessarily conducive to the formation of ‘good’ art. Nonetheless, this point in a band’s career is, without a doubt, a stage of fight or flight- some bands wallow and shrink under the sudden realities of becoming professional performers, while some transcend this inevitable adversity and soar to new heights.

Alvvays is a band that is part of the latter distinction. On Tuesday night, I had the pleasure of heading to the Corona Theatre to watch this jangle-pop quintet perform a set as part of their most recent tour through Canada and the States. The group shows no signs of fatigue, no trace of crumbling and becoming yet another group condemned to the One Hit Wonder categorization on the next Big Shiny Tunes release.

Alvvays Montreal October 20 2015 2Alvvays began the night with one of the set’s liveliest, jangliest numbers, Your Type. Although not present on the band’s 2014 eponymous release, the upbeat tune has been used to open up live performances for quite a while.

The group then blissfully cruised through all nine tracks on the debut record, with the addition of three new songs from their impending sophomore album; vocalist Molly Rankin’s vocals were on point, Alec O’Hanley’s lead guitar lines were crunchy and crisp, and the rhythm section sustained the necessary energy over the 60 minute performance.

Aside from crowd favourite Archie, Marry Me, two of the night’s high points came when the vocals took centre stage. Renditions of Red Planet and Party Police found Rankin’s pure, uncomplicated vocals effortlessly floating upon the subdued musical accompaniment– if concertgoers weren’t already smitten by Rankin’s magnetically reticent persona, then these two moments served as the lynchpin.

Alvvays obliged the receptive Montreal crowd with a two-song encore– mellow, shoegazey track Dives and a somewhat unexpected cover of Alimony, originally performed by Aussie jangle-pop icons The Hummingbirds. This final cover track was far more than homage to a musical influence; it instead spoke to the importance of guitar-based music in contemporary culture.

Lead guitarist Alec O’Hanley has been quoted saying the band is very upfront about incorporating musical influences into Alvvays’ sonic styling. In fact, you can hear decades of indie-pop history in any one of Alvvays’ tracks.

Indeed, the group’s relatively brief musical history can in fact be traced back to the 1980s UK music scene; in particular, the ‘C86’ movement, which became shorthand term for jangling guitars, power-pop structures, and simple production techniques. Originally criticized in its day for lack of complexity, C86-associated artists such as Shop Assistants and Dolly Mixture serve as profound influences today for not only Rankin and O’Hanley, but for acts such as Best Coast, The Drums, and even Montreal’s boy Mac DeMarco (by the way, listen to I Don’t Wanna Be Friends With You by Shop Assistants- it sounds a lot like Alvvays’ Atop a Cake).

But what am I really getting at here? “Okay, cool, Alvvays implements sounds from 80s jangle-pop and incorporates it into their music. Big whoop.” But, this is exactly my point. This is, in fact, a very big deal.

Whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, our current musical culture does not favour the 5-piece band like it used to. In the 1990s, college kids were chugging beers and getting silly while listening to guitar-based bands such as Blink-182, Oasis, Blind Melon, and so on. Now, you’d be hard-pressed to walk into a millennial party and hear someone playing straight-ahead rock music; it simply won’t happen, unless that person is nostalgically blasting Teenage Dirtbag in between Drake tracks.

I’m not saying this cultural occurrence is good or bad– it’s actually pretty natural. Musical trends come, and musical trends go. Who knows, maybe in 20 years Hair Metal will be back in fashion? The bottom line is that guitar music as we know it has, for now, slipped into the popular background, filling niche clubs and concert halls the way Hip-Hop did in the early 1980s. And this isn’t a bad thing at all, so long as a genre of music doesn’t wither away into extinction.

Even though the band has only released one album, Alvvays is an act that effectively exists to ensure the relevance and popularity of not just jangle-pop, but guitar-based music in general. Their early, and continued, success is a sign that audiences both at home and internationally still crave simple four-chord song structures, or the crunch of an electric guitar, or the sound of five people playing their instruments onstage in perfect harmony.

So it is fitting, then, that the first song Molly Rankin ever learned was Don’t Look Back in Anger by Oasis; a simple song, with a simple structure that easily transcended its minimal form to move a generation. Alvvays’ own Archie, Marry Me has a similar effect. As evidenced during Tuesday night’s performance, the song caused an eruption of joy from within the crowd- it was a special moment of communion between the audience and the band that affirmed the group’s importance in the trajectory of indie history. So when Alvvays closed their set with a song by The Hummingbirds, I was assured that the future of guitar-music was in very capable hands.

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