Under the right circumstances, pop musicians are completely emboldened by their swagger. The right gait, a flair for fashion, and unrequited confidence can elevate idols to an almost mystical plain — and people like Prince, Madonna, and David Bowie never inhabited the same atmosphere as us plebes.
But if that kind of presence is not innate, it can be a bad look for someone trying to fake being cool. (The list of pop singers guilty of that crime is too long for this story.) Fortunately, the members of Alvvays — a four-piece jangle-pop group that plays the Fox Theater on Thursday, April 12 — never had any illusions about putting on airs. This humble collective is quite content to play the soft-spoken types, a modesty borne of their unpretentious upbringing on small coastal islands off Canada.
“I think if we came back home and acted like rock stars, the people in my hometown would crack up laughing,” says Molly Rankin, who grew up in Cape Breton, in the province of Nova Scotia. “We don’t really fool anyone there. It’s a nice reminder whenever our egos get a little big.”
Rankin grew up across the street from Alvvays’ (pronounced Always) keyboard player Kerri MacLellan. Guitarist Alec O’Hanley and bassist Brian Murphy are from nearby Prince Edward Island, and the four have known each other since they were teenagers.
While the group’s low-key demeanor has a distinctly Canadian feel — no one would mistake them for a band found in the pages of Meet Me in the Bathroom — their restraint should not be mistaken for a lack of ambition. Their stirring second album, Antisocialites, which was released last year, combines elements of dream-pop, indie-rock, shoegaze, and slowcore.
The group’s self-titled debut was crammed with so many memorable tunes — among them, the ode to matrimony, “Archie, Marry Me” — that one could be forgiven for fearing a sophomore slump, but Antisocialites ups the ante with anthems like “Plimsoll Punks,” “Dreams Tonite,” and “Lollipop (Ode to Jim).”
In fact, Alvvays’ first two albums mirror the first two records of The Strokes — the early-aughts New York band whose style could not be more different. Both groups managed to pen two dozen perfect pop songs, content to stay true to a winning songwriting formula while eschewing needless tinkering.
“I’m just really picky about what I want to include on our album,” Rankin says. “I didn’t want to go into the studio until I was really satisfied with the songs we had.”
While The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas exuded an irreverent detachment — a style fermented into his pores by countless 4 a.m. closing times at Manhattan watering holes — Rankin approaches her songwriting from a hopelessly earnest perspective.
She is plaintive, wearing heart firmly on sleeve. She speaks for the heartbroken, the rejected, the outcasts — the not-cool kids. And it all comes from a place of purity. When, on “Dreams Tonite” she sings, “Rode here on the bus / Now you’re one of us,” it’s because she’s completely comfortable passing up the limo ride in favor of a lift on public transit.
There is a sense of solitude and mournfulness to Alvvays songs, another element that could be attributed to the group’s rural upbringing. Rankin says she spent most of her adolescence by herself, and her songs are filled with character studies of people feeling unworthy of affection or forever living on the margins.
“Instead of writing songs about people running into the arms of one another, I just found it more natural to tell the story of people running away,” she says. “I think after living a crazy life on tour, where I had no personal space at all — which was completely different than my normal life — I just had that real strong urge to spend some time alone. And that is probably reflected in the lyrics.”
Rankin wrote most of the material for the album on an isolated island on Lake Ontario, outside the band’s adopted hometown of Toronto. She said the hermetic experience was uplifting and inspiring, allowing her to tap into a place of true emotional interplay.
On lyrics alone, Antisocialites might sound like a bummer of an album, what with all the tales of woe and heartbreak. But Rankin and company marry those introspective words with some of the damn catchiest melodies in indie rock today. Borrowing heavily from the C86 tape — a famous compendium of jangle pop groups NME Magazine released in 1986 — Antisocialites is layered with one hook after another, giving the songs an ebullient, celebratory feel, despite the heavy lyrical undertones. And for an album that is undeniably twee and precious, Antisocialites has some pretty mean riffs. No one would mistake the record for a Black Sabbath album, but it is surprisingly loud.
The group has a huge tour lined up this year, including several prominent placements in a number of big-name music festivals, such as Coachella — where they’ll head after their Fox gig — Boston Calling, and Shaky Knees. Even with their ever-growing status, don’t expect the group’s band members to suddenly develop the megalomaniac trappings of rock stars.
“I mean, we have confidence — it’s not like we are always doubting ourselves,” Rankin says. “But it would be hilarious if one of us suddenly adopted this larger-than-life persona. I don’t think that would last too long in this band.”
Alvvays with the Drums and Frankie Rose, Thursday, April 12, 7:30 p.m., at the Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. $29.50; thefoxoakland.com