Ivan & Alyosha started off as a very quiet duo with Tim Wilson and Ryan Carbary sharing vocals duties over fingerpicked acoustic guitars. Honeydew vocals, mellow rhythms, monumental images within simple lyrics (“Why is it everytime I come to California it’s on fire?”) and secular yet spiritual themes (‘Fathers Be Kind’, ‘Glorify’) all packaged as fireplace feel-good songs; it was all very folky. Even though they later expanded to a fourtet and added more electric guitar on 2013’s All The Times We Had, it was preceded by the acoustic Cabin Sessions EP, further cementing their talents as a quiet band who charms rather than excites.
On their latest album, It’s All Just Pretend, the band (now a quintet) have decided to double down on their path to a fuller sound, without relinquishing what attracted fans to them in the first place. The band now splits writing duties between Wilson, Carbary, and Pete Wilson (Tim’s brother) but it still sounds like they have a penchant for writing songs with optimism. Songs like ‘Come Rain, Come Shine’ and the piano-driven ballad ‘Tears In Your Eyes’ have a lot of self-doubt regarding one’s ability to be a partner’s man (“I’ve tried my best, it’s not enough, sometimes I feel like I can’t catch up”) but Wilson always finds the silver lining “Our friends and family will always be there, I know the best is yet to come, I know this will take some time. The joy in your eyes was never seizing, I knew you’d be there till the end [though] I caused the tears in your eyes.” It’s one of the most heart-wrenching tunes of 2015 but it serves to show how deeply introspective the band has managed to be even with its bigger personnel.
Likewise, title-track ‘It’s All Just Pretend’ has a chorus that tiptoes on the boundary between where everything crumbles and everything’s okay: “Never trust that man who’s been smiling all his life, his fears will catch up in the end. He’s standing tall while the rest of us are blind. Oh brother, it’s all just pretend.” However, with verses like “If you cry, make sure that they can’t hear. If you laugh, draw your enemies near.” The college catchphrase of faking it ’til you make it is given a bit more sense of purpose, pushed ahead by electric guitars and a fast-paced tempo.
Of course, such sounds were not necessarily what I&A were known for but the first two cuts on the record ‘Something Is Wrong’ and ‘Bury Me Deep’ have lead guitar lines that soar above the songs. On the former, a U2-like guitar solo serves as a bridge before a final rousing chorus of “If freedom is when we’re standing, something is desperately wrong”. It’s a vague target but we all know who boasts the most about ‘freedom’. Yet, the second song doesn’t absolve the singer’s guilt: “Don’t blame America, blame it on me.” Maturity is a cliché and it’s probably not the only reason for the band’s new take on things yet there’s no denying that It’s All Just Pretend is very successful step forward. It’s music that sends your arms up to heaven even if you don’t believe in it. With Ivan & Alyosha, it’s all going to be good.
Ivan & Alyosha play at Casa del Popolo (4873 St Laurent) on May 22 at 8 p.m. Kris Orlowski opens.