New titles from Alvvays, Dry Cleaning and the Arctic Monkeys punctuate this month’s release schedule
October, after a somewhat slow start, picked up steam.
The third Friday of the month had a passel of new releases that could have made their way here. In fact, two of them did.
The month as a whole contained some interesting offers. As good as Bartees’ Strange’s debut Live Forever was, this month’s Farm to Table tops it as Strange manages all the genres that influenced him with ease. Taylor Swift (sorry, rockists, she’s good) delivered Midnights, a more chilled out and far superior return to her Reputation era. While it’s good, Carly Rae Jepsen’s The Loneliest Time tops it as a pure pop album.
The ever-reliable Canadian power poppers Sloan released their 13th album– the aptly-titled Steady, an accurate depiction of their consistency. Simple Minds’ artistic comeback this deep into their existence continued with Direction of the Heart.
But we’re focusing here on Blue Rev– the latest from Canadian hook purveyors Alvvays, the dance between genuine and ironic on Dry Cleaning’s second album Stumpwork and the Arctic Monkeys’ The Car, which also could have been titled How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Croon.
We’re starting north of the border with Alvvays, which had to go through a lot to get Blue Rev together.
Sure, there was the pandemic, which every band had to deal with. But even before that, they faced other challenges. The band’s principal songwriting team of singer Molly Rankin and guitarist Alex O’Hanley were working on new material not long after the album and tour cycle for 2017’s Antisocialites had finished.
Then came Alvvays and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. First, the song demos, which included multiple songs that would eventually appear on Blue Rev, were stolen from Rankin’s Toronto apartment and never recovered. Not even 24 hours later, the basement in the building flooded, effectively destroying nearly all of the band’s gear.
Album: Blue Rev
Label: Polyvinyl Records
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
The pandemic followed, with the challenge for Alvvays being that drummer Sheridan Riley and bassist Abbey Blackwell, who live in the U.S., were unable to practice, write and record with the band for a long time. This happened at a time where they’d already recorded over half an album’s worth of songs.
As many did during the unplanned delay, Rankin worked on things alone, sharpening some things and giving herself free rein to play around creatively in ways she might not have on the first two Alvvays albums.
The band reconvened late last year with producer Shawn Everett, whose list of credits as producer, engineer or mixer just in the last couple years alone includes the likes of The Killers, The War on Drugs, Kacey Musgraves, Belle and Sebastian, Lucy Dacus and Orville Peck.
The pairing works well as Blue Rev strips back the reverb a bit without screwing with the core of what’s made Alvvays work — shimmeringly catchy indie pop that’s too punchy to descend into a twee rabbit hole that’s impossible to escape.
The title’s the name of a pre-made vodka-and-cola beverage in Canada, an “energy booze” that evokes a sort of look back to Rankin’s youth in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Picture how those mediocre wine coolers of the ’80s or cheap regional beers could do the same for someone’s youth in the States.
The engaging “Belinda Says” is a catchy tale of domestic uncertainty, as if the couple at the end of The Graduate got a soundtrack a couple years later. All of that with a great lyric from O’Hanley nodding to its namesake (“Belinda says that heaven is a place on Earth/Well, so is hell”) on the outro.
In its first few seconds, catchy lead single “Pharmacist” sounds like prototypical Alvvays, then the guitar kicks in with that trademark Kevin Shields bendy note by way of Teenage Fanclub. Lyrically, it’s not “You can’t go home again” and more “You can go home. Just accept that some of the people, places and relationships won’t be the same.”
“Very Online Guy” shows some of that more experimental spirit. It marries synth-led music with lyrics that work as commentary about THAT kind of guy in comments sections (“He’s incredibly vigilant/Hair with the feathered wings/He likes to pull the strings”) and the insecurity that drives him (“But when you’re close to me, does anyone notice/Life disintegrates, what was it supposed to be?/The truth is I’m afraid to turn away/But when you’re ghosting me, does anyone notice”). It manages to be a funny takedown and empathetic character study in one.
“Pomeranian Spinster” is relently energetic in a way that so many great sugar high singles are. It’s also a great tale of a woman out walking her dog who does not want to put up with your crap, especially if you feel the need to comment on the run in her tights or ask her to smile.
“After the Earthquake”, more jangly, is about love during a disaster, or rather love becoming a more personal disaster than the other one.
If the bendy guitar in “Pharmacist” and the breakup’s a comin’ “Tom Verlaine” recall one corner of music’s past, the guitar of “Pressed” definitely bring Johnny Marr’s time in the Smiths to mind.
It isn’t all guitar. “Bored in Bristol” is lovely synthpop where the synths don’t go over the top. “Tile by Tile” is more bittersweet in its take on the genre, perfectly abetted by a return of the heavier reverb.
Rankin delivers the lyrics in ways that get the intent across. She’s as capable of being funny (“Is she a perfect ten?/Have you found Christ again?” in “Velveteen”) as she is tearing at the heartstrings (“Lucky sevens align while I’m riding the pine/And I’ll always be looking for ways/To remember the sound of the lottery noises/That I can’t believe rang for me” in “Lottery Noises”).
Blue Rev packs a lot into its 14 songs and almost 39 minutes. As pure guitar and synth-augmented pop,it constantly delights through its dreamy, loud, twee and sharp turns. Lyrically, Rankin and O’Hanley come up with the ideas and images to match.
“There is a world that we insist on inhabiting, and to get into that world it takes a lot of time,” Rankin told the Guardian earlier this month. “It takes a lot of work to make things sound rough, and pretty, and strange and familiar.”
The work paid off. Both of Alvvays’ previous albums were among their years’ best. Blue Rev is even better — a more refined effort that lifts up their already terrific catalog.
In contrast, Dry Cleaning had better luck in putting together Stumpwork, their follow-up to last year’s promising New Long Leg (and its arresting single “Scratchcard Lanyard”).
Dry Cleaning, with Florence Shaw’s talk-singing, definitely falls under the post-punk tag. But it’s also warmer and less strident than its influences. Shaw’s able to remain deadpan without being dispassionate, not an easy line to walk.
Artist: Dry Cleaning
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
“No Decent Shoes for Rain” rides on woozy, wobbly guitar (that also appears on “Driver’s Story” in a form Stephen Malkmus would have taken on back in the day). Shaw outlines isolation manifesting in self-amusement (“I’m bored, but I get a kick out of buying things/Autonomy can be found at the shops for me!) or awkward meetings (“I’ve seen your arse, but not your mouth/That’s normal now”).
“Gary Ashby” is an endearing ode to a departed family pet, made even more so by Shaw breaking out from the sprechgesang.
Dry Cleaning’s debut didn’t come from the minds of a band just in their 20s. That life experience shows in the variety of styles that make their way into Stumpwork’s 11 songs.
“Hot Penny Day” starts out funky, then takes a detour to a pyschedelic-tinged desert halfway through, as Shaw delivers lines that stick like “I’m not here to provide blank/They can fucking provide blank”.
The title track goes somewhat in reverse, opening with guitar that echoes Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd before backing impressionistic lyrics with a marriage of light pop backing with post-punk guitars.
“Kwenchy Kups”, whose title comes from a pudding cup-shaped equivalent of juice boxes, is a jangly joy, mixing the realistic details of watching animals with imagining things like turning yourself into a shoulder bag.
Shaw may talk more than she sings, but she pulls off the true and surreal, the witty and real with equal deftness.
“Conservative Hell” accurately reflects the song’s contents, the state of mind of living in the U.K. these days reflected outward (“They’re trying to mythologize everything”). Again, Dry Cleaning mixes things up within one song, starting out in a peppy guitar-driven midtempo before shifting to an ambient, trippy instrumental second half.
Dry Cleaning manages to sound very much like they’re riding their own particular streams of consciousness without falling off the rails. There’s a tightness here, even as they explore, both in the shorter songs as well as the longer “Liberty Logs” and “Iceberg” that close the album.
The ways the various genres that the band melds to post-punk proves to be endlessly listenable with how they play off Shaw’s vocals, which sound like they’re taking a different path to the same destination.
Consider the promise delivered upon.
The Arctic Monkeys surprised people with 2018’s Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, which sought to recast the rock band in a heavy coating of space age lounge music.
The whole affair felt more like it made more sense as the third album from the Last Shadow Puppets — singer and songwriter Alex Turner’s other, more intermittent band — than as the Arctic Monkeys’ fifth.
It was all very well-performed and it was hard not to admire the commitment to the new vision. The ideas and aesthetic were there, but one was left wanting more good songs. Even decadent party spots in outer space need hooks. But there was enough to make one wonder positively — where would the band go from here?
Artist: Arctic Monkeys
Album: The Car
Label: Domino Records
★★★1/2 (3.5/5 stars)
Almost four-and-a-half years later, we have our answer, which turns out to be, basically, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino 2.
The Car explores much of the same turf as its predecessor, without the life in space affections. It’s also more consistent in terms of the actual songs.
Take lead single and album opener “There’d Better be a Mirrorball,” Turner’s croon shows a definite Bowie influence, although more often Bowie through the filter of his influence on Jarvis Cocker.
The song, about the end of a relationship, mixes strings and lounge jazz in a way that wouldn’t have been out of place on a latter-day Pulp album.
Second single “Body Paint” cuts out the Cockerian middle man to winning effect, complete with appearance of a guitar solo that sounds like something Mick Ronson would have dropped in (albeit less restrained).
“Jet Ski on the Moat” offers some playful wah-wah into a song where Turner’s falsetto croon is more affecting than affected. Still, it seems tired compared to “I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am”, which puts across its depiction of the emptiness of the idle rich with more verve (“Stackable party guests to fill the awkward silences”).
“Mr. Schwartz” is a character sketch about some unsavory suit with an entourage or perhaps self-commentary (Turner has an engaging way with a turn of phrase to sometimes frustratingly vague results). It holds the interest anyway.
“Big Ideas” offers promise in its “life in a band” premise with the heavy strings, with the brief appearance of guitar towards the end a welcome relief.
And therein lies the rub. For all its improvements on the song side from Tranquility Hotel, there is a tendency for the band to rely on tasteful restraint. Moments that tease takeoffs to something closer to transcendence never happen.
Nobody’s expecting another AM soundalike at this point, or a return to the sound of “I Bet You’d Look Good on the Dancefloor”, for that matter. They’re not in their 20s anymore, not the same band or the same people.
But it wouldn’t have hurt to have some bursts of energy to cut through the gauze, allowing Turner’s ideas to land with a punch. Or at least if they had a shade more focus, delivering sharp wit with a scalpel as Cocker’s best work has.
The end result is that for its winning moments, for all of Turner’s lyrical smarts (“Puncturing your bubble of relatability with your horrible new sound/Baby, those mixed messages ain’t what they used to be when you said ‘em out loud”), The Car feels too much of the same thing.
It’s hard to begrudge a band for exploring new directions, but it’s also difficult not to feel like the Arctic Monkeys have found themselves in the tastefully decadent (but not too decadent, mind you) place at the end of a cul de sac.
We’ll have to see whether they remain parked there to tweak their current formula or to hit the road again, either to familiar territory or to places they have yet to visit.