Music is at its most potent when it expands, dissolves, changes and challenges borders. Separations of genre, geography, politics — none are a force more powerful than people getting together to make music in a room. That borderlessness is sewn into the fabric of the self-titled debut album by Alvvays, a Toronto band whose beach-pop seems to come straight from the California shore.
The quintet's closest sonic cousins are the dyed-in-the-wool Californians in Best Coast. Bethany Cosentino makes her physical roots more obvious than her Canadian counterparts do — naming her songs, albums and band after her native land — but the sun Cosentino's Californians find "in our teeth and in our hair" clearly found its way north, and coruscates from every surface of Alvvays.
Alvvays' Molly Rankin sings in the same deadpan as Cosentino, but the two part ways when it comes to their subject matter. The lyrics throughout Alvvays are direct; they're mostly sung to people rather than about them, lending immediate access to every story. They're also awkward — which is to say they're about awkwardness in a way that songs, particularly beach songs, rarely are. Millennial social anxiety, it turns out, is a wildcard genius pairing with breezy, effortlessly cool surf-rock, and the combination is irresistible. "Adult Diversion," for example, obsesses over whether a social interaction "is a good time / or is it highly inappropriate." No time for lying around in the sun after catching waves today, man — there are too many future conversations to hash out in great detail ("Archie, Marry Me").
Over-analyzing, easygoing; reverb-infused, direct; nonchalant, plaintive: These aren't unprecedented musical pairings, but Alvvays wields them particularly well, tapping into a widely mined and instantly recognizable genre to create their juxtapositions. Here's to a summer of jangly garage-pop guitars, windows rolled down, and constantly wondering if you've just made a fool of yourself in front of your friends.
Never Hungover Again begins with a cold open — just a one-second chord and vocalist/guitarist Barry Johnson "looking at your face in the dark" — of a lanky pop song that already seems to be in progress. Joyce Manor has never been one to extend the drama, with albums shorter than it takes to watch an episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast; the punk band can pack an emotional wallop with as much as a yelp.
Now on its third album, the Torrance, Calif.-based band has embraced the shades of The Smiths that were merely suggested previously. Johnson could never be mistaken for Morrissey, but he's mostly ditched the scream for a nasal SoCal pop-punk croon that bounces over careening Britpop guitars in songs like "Schley," "End of the Summer" and "Heated Swimming Pool." But it's "Falling in Love Again" — with its jangly power chords, melancholy single-note melody and a sudden sweep of synths — that might be the most Johnny Marr-like of this bunch. That said, Morrissey might think twice about singing, "I think you're funny / I like your friends / I like the way they treat you."
Even in Never Hungover Again's most straightforward punk songs, lessons have been learned from The Smiths. "Victoria" lets full chords ring out — and wrings every hook out of the namesake's syllables in the chorus — while "Heart Tattoo" subdivides a pogo-ing rhythm with stuttered, melodic guitar picking. It makes for a confident, focused record that still gleefully indulges in pick scrapes and fast three-chord songs.
Tim Presley has been performing as White Fence for a few years now, building on a diverse resume that borders on the impossible: He played in hardcore punk band The Nerve Agents in the late '90s, leads the space-rock group Darker My Love, was a member of the garage outfit Strange Boys, and even found time to join The Fall. He's also cut six albums as White Fence since 2010 — including Hair, a well-received collaboration with the equally busy Ty Segall.
Presley uses White Fence as a proving ground for ideas that, as of For the Recently Found Innocent, have steered toward the gentle pomp of late-'60s psychedelic pop, rock and folk. He arrives there with many of that era's trappings: an affected accent (more English than British, if that makes sense), vintage gear, and songs that stir up the magic of the time, though with economical production values that eschew heavy studio treatments. This isn't The White Album; there's no Mellotron orchestration or backwards drumming here, just tastefully arranged, skillfully played, guitar-oriented throwbacks to a more hopeful time, full-bodied and dripping with paisleys.
Within those confines, Presley cuts both ways against the artifice of a resurrected sound, by writing to the canon from which he performs and bending it to his will, often in the same song. He seems equally comfortable channeling Donovan ("Hard Water," "Sandra [When the Earth Dies]") and more rambunctious influences; "Like That" charges along like a long-lost track by madcap Birmingham outfit The Move, which would later morph into Electric Light Orchestra. As a whole, For the Recently Found Innocent sounds like a loving tribute to a past that many of us never experienced firsthand — and, in the process, it's sturdy enough to survive the choppy waters of today.
Sheffield, England — the setting for The Full Monty and part of the British equivalent of the Rust Belt — seems an unlikely spawning ground for the wistful pop of this duo with a deceptively static name. But from the youthful, acoustic-and-harmony-based pop of their early material to the more elaborate arrangements of 2011's Paradise, Slow Club's music has always had an upful sheen that's sometimes belied by melancholy lyrics and melodies.
For Complete Surrender, their third full-length, singers and multi-instrumentalists Charles Watson and Rebecca Taylor have moved on from their earlier releases, streamlining and refining their songwriting while hauling in a truckload of R&B influences from several different eras. Northern soul has been a strong tradition in the north of England since the 1960s, and here the duo has brought a crate-digger's expertise to their soulful sounds.
There's a heaping spoonful of Motown in "Suffering," some Supremes/Bacharach flourishes on the title track, Philly soul strings in "Not Mine to Love" and a giant Stax Records/Otis Redding influence and a bring-the-house-down vocal from Taylor on ... er ... yes, a song actually called "The Queen's Nose." (The title, which comes from a children's book and 1990s BBC TV series, will be baffling to anyone who isn't a Brit of a certain age; the song's lyrics address heartbreak, music and, apparently, pregnancy but not the book or show, at least not overtly).
While not a retro album, there's definitely a silky '60s groove to much of Complete Surrender.
"We wanted to make a straight record — drums, bass, organ, guitar, maybe strings," Watson says. "The idea behind it was to be a bit more reserved." Indeed, Taylor is a singer of rare subtlety and skill. She doesn't bowl you over with showboating and Aguilera-style pyrotechnics. You just suddenly realize, wow, she's killing it on that chorus.
The duo has already released a pair of videos from the album: the title track, which finds Taylor unexpectedly glammed up and dancing, and the Rocky-themed "Suffering You, Suffering Me," where she's anything but.
The group — which has toured with Mumford and Sons, KT Tunstall and Florence and the Machine, among others — did a quick Stateside run last month but will be back for a full tour in September. Slow Club expands to a quartet (and sometimes more) in a live setting, and while the group's show is dazzling for any number of reasons, the sight of Taylor playing the drums in a cocktail dress while belting out a soulful ballad is particularly not to be missed.
Too much sugar is unhealthy — and it's easy, in today's world, to get too much. Sugar is empty calories, it causes decay, it implies a lack of substance, and yet we crave it. But our brains also run on it, and it's critical in energy production. For better and worse, sweetness is intoxicating. So how do we find balance? On its latest album, Hello Memory, the Brooklyn trio Little Daylight offers a sort of nutritional road map.
First, there are different kinds of sugar: sugars created in labs, sugars found in nature, sugars that combine the two. Little Daylight throws in its lot with naturally occurring fructose, capitalizing on what surrounds the sweetness. Hello Memory is synth-driven, youthful electro-pop, but there's fiber in the pith. Nikki Taylor's vocals are anthemic and fun, while her lyrics veer into darkness ("Overdose") and are paired with mercurial instrumentation by Matt Lewkowicz and Eric Zeiler; their work helps swing the record from Toni Basil's bubblegum ("My Life") to Imogen Heap's ethereality ("Be Long") to M83's ambient post-rock ("Nothing to Lose").
Naturally occurring sugar isn't a lack of substance; it's a reward for substance. Fruit is sweet, but its sweetness belongs to a package that includes vital nutrients. Little Daylight sounds both breezy and grounded, heady and cerebral, with its feet on the ground even as it soars. The superficial appeal of Hello Memory is immediate and endorphin-driven, but repeat listens reveal sophisticated production and impeccable delivery. This record masters the art of a balanced breakfast: It's a treat without sacrificing density, substantial while still ebullient and, perhaps more than any other single thing, delicious to the last bite.