What makes for a good live band? And how exactly does a polished studio sound translate to the acoustics of a small club? These were questions I pondered in between songs at the recent gig for Alvvays, the tragically cute indie-pop quintet from Toronto. Fortunately, any concerns about a poor transition were dashed early on, with the band proving to be a surprisingly formidable presence in their short but sweet performance at the Brudenell Social Club.
Opening the night was Alvvays’ fellow Canadian export Moon-King, a perfectly serviceable dream-pop ensemble. They delivered a relatively solid set, but ultimately failed to leave any memorable impression. Perhaps it’s just me, but I feel as if the window of opportunity for shoegaze bands and other MBV acolytes is slowly narrowing. When you’ve heard the umpteenth shimmering guitar melody, accompanied by wispy vocals, the artists start to blend into one. Sweeping statements aside, Moon-King nonetheless served their purpose, producing an agreeable ambience as the crowd milled in and tentatively sipped their first drinks.
From the second they plugged in their equipment, Alvvays played like consummate musicians, belying their scruffy teenage appearance. Each song was meticulously crafted, to the extent that their performance seemed more like a carefully choreographed dance than anything else. But this formalistic precision was achieved while still retaining a sense, or at least illusion, of improvisation needed to make any gig feel authentic. Although every band member proved their worth, it was the spindly interplay between the bassist Brian Murphy and lead guitarist Alec O’Hanley that really impressed.
But it was the fragile vocals of lead singer Molly Rankin that gave Alvvays the warmth needed to counterbalance their methodical playing style. For every time her voice cracked in falsetto, like on moving ballad ‘Party Police’, I felt like I was watching something akin to therapy. Given the live space to perform, her lyrics revealed greater depth and wisdom than I had ever noticed on their record. For example, when Rankin wistfully sang that she’s “An outcast of modern society / Suffering from a case of sobriety” on ‘The Agency’, the lines became something more than cute, surface-level wordplay. Her guileless stage presence also served her well when she interacted with the audience, at one point asking everyone if it was “kosher in Leeds” to wear a Morrissey t-shirt.
Having only released one album, the band was able to run through their entire repertoire, closing their encore with a preview of their new material, playing ‘Haircut’ from the upcoming sophomore release. Relying on more web-like melodies and heavier percussion, it indicated a promising evolution in their sound.
All in all, it was a highly satisfying experience. Alvvays’ particular brand of pure pop, blasted through a lo-fi filter, made for an electrifying performance. When Rankin openly mused “We were here only a year ago, opening for Real Estate…”, a sense of disbelief lingered in her voice. But for anyone in that audience, their sudden ascension in the ranks didn’t seem surprising at all.
By Oliver Mangham