Alvvays - Antisocialites

by Mark Moody Rating:6 Release Date:2017-09-08

Alvvays’ second album Antisocialites finds lead singer/songwriter Molly Rankin and her crew trying to find their identity, or maybe more appropriately trying lose it.  Their debut from three years ago made such a big splash with its sunny retro sound, irreverent lyrics and Rankin’s crisp songwriting that it’s sad to see them put that behind them in favor of trying out some new sound experiments.  What was a coherent approach on their debut turns into a mish-mash of styles and what the promo materials describe as “some brand new tricks”.  The tricks seem to consist of ill-timed distortion that mask the melodies, random effects that don’t add to the songs, and a determination not to settle on their own sound.  Whereas their first album varied in tempo from song to song there was no mistaking you were listening to the same band.  They now seem unwilling to live in their own skin.  No doubt there are some great singles here and at least one song that works by going outside the lines, but for the most part the songs are forgettable or a bit of a mess.  In spite of the skills we know Rankin has, she also sounds lost in places or forced to take a second seat to some low level experimentalism – her bandmates aren’t breaking any new ground, just getting in the way.  As Rankin sings on one of the stronger but way too short songs here, ‘Forget About Life’ they “try out the synthesizer you bought yesterday” in too many places over the album and almost wreck this song as well.

At its best, Antisocialites does have some great pop songs that aren’t victimized by the attempt to make things more “interesting”.  The leadoff song and first single, ‘In Undertow’, confidently kicks things off with Rankin’s wit fully intact as she easily weaves in words like “rhetorically” and “metaphorically” into a soundscape of fuzzy guitars as if it were second nature.  The song does end in an odd extended “no turning ba-aack” that makes it sound like it’s the opening of a TV sit-com, but that’s a minor quibble.  ‘Dreams Tonite’ mainly works as a sweetly sung ballad, but contrasted to the edgy lyric of ‘Archie, Marry Me’ where the protagonists “go out and scour the streets for trouble” here she wonders if “I saw you on the street would I see you in my dreams tonight”.  It highlights the dullness of the lyrics in places compared to the preceding album. 

The middle of the album really drags and is about as interesting as the successive song titles of ‘Your Type’, ‘Hey’, and ‘Not My Baby’.  They are as forgettable as the titles suggest with the surfy ‘Your Type’ being the best of the lot, relaying a story of being kicked out of the Louvre for taking a photo of the Mona Lisa but the chorus of “I will never be your type” just fails the verse and it’s another song that’s over in barely two minutes.  If they can get a good thing going it needs to be worked for a while.  The chorus of “now that you’re not my baby” on the next track is about as imaginative as “I will never be your type” on the song before.  What happened to the cleverness of lines like “we can find comfort in debauchery”?  The worst of the three, ‘Hey’ is a total mess with eighties synths, wonky guitars and Rankin singing uncomfortably in a few different accents which leaves you wondering what the heck went wrong here.  The track ‘Already Gone’ typifies the failed experiments by starting with promise but it’s quickly marred by bleeps and blips that add nothing and then devolves into some mild “whale song” guitar effects almost burying the one biting line of “drain the pool, the Summer’s over”. 

The band does manage to pull off a few out of the box attempts, with ‘Lollipop (Ode to Jim)’ being on par with ‘Archie, Marry Me’ but also the one example where having their reach exceed their grasp actually works.  It's three minutes of pop bliss with Rankin as sure-footed as on their debut with a staccato chorus and letting Jim know who’s in charge with him being “a lollipop in my hand”.  This track echoes the earlier in the year success of New Pornographers who have much more experience under their belts but are fine to be emulated if done right.  The album does close well with ‘Saved By a Waif’ (in spite of some out of place and puzzling sound effects) and the aforementioned ‘Forget About Life’ regaining some of the foothold established at the beginning of the album.  Rankin’s most confident and heartbreaking singing comes right at the end of the album asking her guy if he “wants to forget about life with me tonight, inhaling this undrinkable wine”, but as mentioned ends way too quickly.

Their debut was certainly a tall order to follow, but I’m confident the band or Rankin with some variation thereof, can find their way back.  If they are willing to accept themselves as a smart as a whip pop band that can cover a variety of tempos while letting Rankin take the lead they may move on to greater success.  An experimental band they are not and their half-hearted attempts to cross that breach just don’t pan out.  I’m going to enjoy the handful of great songs that are scattered throughout and have confidence that Alvvays can recover from this stumble and move forward.       

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