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Molly Rankin fiddling with pop formula

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The first thing you need to know about Alvvays is that it's pronounced "always." (The typographical styling helps distinguish it from a certain feminine hygiene company, both in our minds and in our Google search browsers.)

The second thing you need to know: while the Toronto fuzz-pop outfit is fronted by Molly Rankin -- yes, of those Rankins -- there's a reason Alvvays isn't called the Molly Rankin Band. Or Project. Or Experience. Because she'll be the first one to tell you: it's not all about her.

Though she's the voice of one of this year's most talked-about bands -- thanks to its shimmering self-titled debut, out today via Royal Mountain Records in Canada -- Rankin is an uneasy frontwoman. It's a simple temptation to fixate on her and her musical pedigree; she's got a beguiling voice and she's a captivating presence.

But it's telling that her vocals aren't at the forefront of the record; instead, they are often another instrument, joining those wielded by Kerri Maclellan (keys/vocals), Alec O'Hanley (guitar, formerly of East Coast pop purveyors Two Hours Traffic), Brian Murphy (bass) and Phil MacIsaac (drums).

And, to her relief, people have stopped referring to Alvvays as Alvvays featuring Molly Rankin. "I feel like I've had to let so much of that stuff go," she says over the phone from Toronto. "It's over, but I had to move on before that whole thing disappeared."

Back in 2010, Rankin, 27, released a solo EP -- but being a girl-with-a-guitar coffeehouse act didn't interest her. Besides, the new songs she was writing begged for a band. "They were a little more poppy," she says. "I knew it'd be more of a band sound."

Alvvays had clear ideas about how that sound would manifest on record. "We knew we wanted it to sound washy. We wanted to record it to tape so it would have that layer of tape hiss. We wanted it to sound like an artifact. And we wanted to juxtapose dark lyrics with sugary pop structures."

And so, they hooked up with pop experimentalist Chad VanGaalen, who recorded the album at his Yoko Eno home studio in Calgary. "My brother was living in Calgary and was sending me his records," Rankin says. "I became a huge fan. He has a very dark but powerful voice. His production is ornate and mystical, which is what I was drawn to."

The album's beauty lies at its blurred edges. Awash in reverb, Rankin's voice is dreamy and detached, her gleaming pure-pop melodies floating over dissonant, sun-bleached, surf-rock guitars. The relentlessly hooky lead single Marry Me, Archie sounds like Bandwagonesque-era Teenage Fanclub; but while it's definitely nostalgic for the '90s, there's an anxious undercurrent of millennial angst.

In other words, it's not the kind of record one might expect from a nice, fiddle-playing Cape Breton girl.

"When you're a little person in Cape Breton, picking up the fiddle -- or really any Celtic tradition -- is encouraged. Nothing brings the grandparents more joy," Rankin says with a laugh.

Rankin was 10 when she picked up the fiddle, learning from her father, the late John Morris Rankin, who was killed in a car accident in 2000.

Rankin's tiny hometown of Mabou is insular, both geographically and musically. "The closest place to get a CD would be Walmart, and that was 40 minutes away. I remember getting Oasis albums at Walmart. Kerri used to steal records from her older siblings (Maclellan was Rankin's next-door neighbour) and we'd listen to them together and just be blown away. Like, 'Whoa, Alanis said the F-word!'"

Rankin says her family is supportive of her new musical path, even if it doesn't include the fiddle. "They're really sweet and they don't have to be," she says. "But I think they know more than anyone that life is super-short."

While Alvvays is having a major moment -- the record has already received thumbs-up from the likes of NPR, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone -- Rankin isn't ready to give up her serving job just yet.

"(A music career) just doesn't seem like a very safe thing to pursue," she says. "I have that approaching-30 anxiety of parental judgment and your peers evolving around you. I don't know if making music is a profession anymore. It's more of a labour of love or hobby that you have to support."

And, for right now, that's all right with her.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 22, 2014 C3

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