Let’s start with some background. Ivan & Alyosha (the name is a reference to two of Dostoyevsky’s brothers Karamazov) began as a folk duo back in 2007. By 2009 they had doubled their membership and managed to catch the fancy of NPR’s team covering that year’s SXSW and that exposure threw them into the public consciousness. In the years since, they have trickled out new material in a series of EPs and one full album length release that combined four new tracks with about a half dozen previously released ones. This album, It’s All Just Pretend, is their first album with all new material.
That this band became the darling of public radio while at SXSW gives the listener an idea of what they’re going to be getting from Ivan & Alyosha. There’s an air of polished earnestness paired with a folksy charm that can evoke Tunnel of Love-era Bruce Springsteen as much as Mumford and Sons. The band is often described as being “folk-pop.” At the most conservative, that split would be 20% folk and 80% pop, it’s a little too flannel-clad/ironic facial hair hipster to fall squarely into the modern adult contemporary radio format but not by much.
While more than half of the tracks on the record are victims of their own saccharine sentimentality, there are four stand out tracks that will pull in even the most hesitant of listeners. “All This Wandering Around” has delightfully Beatles-flavored backing vocals and structure that is elegantly simple and surprisingly driving. “Modern Man” has a reverby grimey jangle that recalls the neo-psychedelia of Tame Impala. “Drifting Away” is a drum-machine backed honkey-tonk played through a reverb module set to empty room; it’s equal parts mechanical and heart breaking. The closer, “Don’t Lose Your Love,” takes the sentimentality found throughout the rest of the record and channels it perfectly into a simple vocal with guitar accompaniment number; it is easily the high point of the album.
While the pop indie-folk veneer on most of the record can be sickly sweet at times, the numbers where they get away from that, where they sound a little less FM radio friendly, are where Ivan & Alyosha really shine.