Not to give them any more ammunition, but the next time your dad or your loudmouthed brother-in-law or that one dickhead friend you have who refuses to acknowledge anything that exceeds the bounds of the local “classic”-rock radio playlist as “real music” starts running on at the mouth about why he never listens to an album made after 1978, give him a polite nudge in Young Rival’s direction.
I say that at the risk of falsely situating what this blazingly talented Hamilton power-pop trio does for a living in rock ‘n’ roll’s past, which is emphatically not where it should be situated. Despite its outwardly classicist stance, Young Rival’s disciplined blend of barroom raucousness, sculpted neo-New Wave angularity and harmonious British-Invasion frivolity is upfront and aggressive and knowledgeably “meta”-without-irony in a manner that’s thoroughly “now.”
Young Rival does, however, harbour an informed reverence for popular-music history that makes it an indie-rock act capable of winning over audiences that might ordinarily turn a deaf ear to indie-rock. Here’s a hard-tourin’, down-to-business threesome that hits all of the time-honoured marks a “real” rock ‘n’ roll band is supposed to hit. And these cats aren’t playing dress-up, either. Young Rival – guitarist and frontman Aron D’Alesio, bassist John Smith and drummer Noah Fralick – comes by its old-school predilections honestly. It’s been true to its roots since its inception. “That was all the stuff I grew up listening to, and these guys, too,” says D’Alesio. “Yardbirds, Beatles, Kinks, all that stuff – those are the things I grew up listening to. My dad got me into that stuff. I didn’t even know who Kurt Cobain was until the guy died, y’know? Whenever I listen to contemporary music, I enjoy it, but personally I’ve never been too much into what’s going on around me. I like to dig at stuff that’s not happening. Those are the things that are interesting to me.”
The members of Young Rival like to joke that they’re perpetually unfashionable, which isn’t quite true. Back in the mid-2000s, when the band made a couple of albums under the moniker the Ride Theory, garage-y guitar/bass/drums acts were all the rage and they were, briefly, kinda fashionable. The cool kids soon moved on to drum machines, cheap synthesizers and asymmetrical haircuts, though, and Young Rival – unable to be anything but honest about where it’s coming from – was cast back out onto the periphery of Hipsterdom. The band is fine with the periphery, of course. It’s not into chasing fashion or blog buzz. It’s got plenty of friends in the business, too, having done a couple of tours now with pals the Sadies, Born Ruffians and the Pack A.D. But it’s still a tough position to be in as a Canadian indie band if you never sound neither particularly “indie” nor “Canadian” in whatever the going senses of “indie” and “Canadian” might be. “In terms of trend and trying to catch something like that, it would be great to get some attention. But we’re not fucking trendy,” laughs D’Alesio. “It’s like the last thing we are.”
“We’ve always been really true to ourselves, just doing what the three of us like and what we think sounds cool,” shrugs Smith. “You get to this point as you play long enough or grow up where you don’t really give a shit,” adds Fralick. “If you are a ‘blog band,’ that certainly helps, but it’s not the only way to do it. It’s so fickle.” So no, there’s nothing terribly au courant about Young Rival’s sophomore full-length, Stay Young. If you value songwriting, melody and musicianly chops in their most timeless forms, though, you’ll find much to love here.
Stay Young is maybe a more delicate creature than its predecessor, 2010’s all-guns-blazing Young Rival, exploring as it does the poppier reaches of the band’s hard-to-pin-down sound. This album – produced with just enough scruffiness once again by Fucked Up/Arkells/Tokyo Police Club producer Jon Drew – picks up where the last album’s breezy “The Ocean” and “Don’t Make A Sound” left off, introducing new layers of complexity into the tunes even as they hearken back to an even more youthful and naïve era of pop music’s formative years. There’s a whiff of early “beat” groups to the brisk, endearingly adolescent earworms “Black Popcorn” and “Two Reasons,” a bit of Nuggets-era brashness to “I Don’t Care” and “Better Things to Do.” “Let It Go,” meanwhile, adds a touch of Clash-esque dubspace to the Young Rival palette, while “Lost” sprawls psychedelically in a way nothing the band has recorded has sprawled before. “Night Song,” for its part, is a decidedly sweet puppy-love ballad that feels beamed in from a more innocent age.
The only real guideline – besides writing songs that were genuinely fun to play in front of a crowd – the band set for itself going in was to make “a collection of the best songs we’d ever done together,” says D’Alesio. “We wanted to be able to look back at them and be proud of them – to be able to go back and listen to them and just be, like: ‘Yeah, we really fucking did something there that we’re happy with,’” he says. “I find that so many times you write something and you put something together and go back and listen to something and there are so many things that you could have done better, so many things you wish you would have done instead. So for me, at least, this was just trying to do something that we could really stand behind and be really proud of.”
The stylistic stretching-out has always been a part of the Young Rival oeuvre. It’s just that this time the group decided to hone in on a different area of its abilities. “It opens the aperture as to what you think this band can do. It’s not just like: ‘Oh, they do this. And they do what they do well and that’s all they do,’” says D’Alesio. “It’s to let people know early on we can do a number of different styles within something that still feels like a cohesive effort.” It’s mission to conjure a bunch of “undeniable tunes” accomplished, Young Rival will now take to the road in earnest to make sure as many people in as many ports of call that will have it get to hear them the way they’re meant to be heard: on the live stage.
Live is where it’s at for Young Rival. It rebounded from the loss of its second guitarist, Kyle Kuchmey, after the release of Young Rival by becoming one of the most fearsome three-pieces on the North American touring trail. But don’t take my word for it. Let them sell themselves. Chances are they’ll be coming to your town soon. These cats don’t shy away from the road. “It’s just work ethic. If you’re in a band, you should play,” says Fralick. “I don’t wanna reduce everything back to being from Hamilton, but Hamilton’s a very working-class place. But you do your job and if your job is being in a band, then you should be out playing. And that’s the most thrilling part. I know Aron loves being in the studio and John loves being in the studio; I don’t mind it, but I can’t do it for very long. But we all love playing. It’s one of the only ways you kinda gauge how things are going.”
“On paper, that’s the way it should be,” affirms D’Alesio. “We’re a band? What do we do? We go and play.”