Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Rural Alberta Advantage: Departing

The Rural Alberta Advantage
Rating: 3.5/5.0
Label: Saddle Creek Records

Departing will sound immediately familiar to anyone who's heard Hometowns, the 2009 wounded-hearts-and-small-towns album from Canadian indie-folk trio the Rural Alberta Advantage. Lead singer and primary lyricist Nils Edenloff, offering the type of assessment that will shape how listeners and critics view the album for years, has described Departing as Hometowns' companion piece. He's not kidding, as even upon first listen the similarities are obvious, both in how the album sounds - acoustically-minded but occasionally explosive - and more so in the imagery that links the album to its predecessor: weather, ghosts, bones, Great White North geography, heartbreaks and promises of fidelity can be found throughout the record.

For listeners it's a simple equation: those who got hooked on the band via Hometowns will likely get hooked a little more with Departing, while dissenters - maybe those still wondering just where the bass is or who find Edenloff's nasal vocals too abrasive - probably won't be impressed. It's this latter group's loss, though, as throughout the album the RAA mostly succeed by following this tightly-honed blueprint. The band can be contemplative and fatalistic: ; on album opener "Two Lovers," acoustic guitar and a graceful melody accentuate the track's dark, death-obsessed exterior. It's a love song, of sorts, as Edenloff says, "And you will die and become a ghost/ And haunt me until my pulse also slows." Album closer "Good Night" is likewise restrained, the dual vocals of Edenloff and Amy Cole complementing the song's panoramic landscape and gentle percussion; it also has all the markings of a concert closer, if only the hipster indie crowd in the back by the bar just wouldn't talk so loud. As they did on Hometowns with "Luciana" and "The Dethbridge in Lethbridge," the RAA mix in several rock songs amidst all the folksy balladry; "Muscle Relaxants," "Stamp" and "Tornado '87" add muscle and volume to the album without making it any less cohesive.

It's not accurate to dismiss the album as a complete retread of Hometowns, however, as it does sporadically reveal a subtle evolution in the band's sound. Paul Banwatt's drumming is less up-front in the mix - though it's front-and-center on "Under the Knife" - an approach that makes the songs' instrumentation sound more balanced, if slightly less unique, on "The Breakup" and "Barnes' Yard." Edenloff's vocals are generally more refined and polished but still remain expressive and unconventional; as a singer he knows how to bend and phrase his words to wring out the emotions, particularly on "North Star" and "Coldest Days."

Departing's main drawback is that it's thematically repetitive: the album's first image is that of two lovers in an embrace - a recurring motif that was all over Hometowns and appears on at least four other songs this time around - while most of the album is also cluttered with references to beating hearts (not of the gothic variety) and all-conquering, capital-L Love. True, some artists have made careers out of constantly mining this topic, and no one seemed to mind when Bethany Cosentino wrote the same song 12 times on Crazy for You, but sometimes Edenloff's lyrics feel too narrow, too insular in their scope. Still, the album is highly listenable and as a continuation of Hometowns is usually spot on. The RAA don't break new musical ground on Departing, but it's a fine release from a band whose potential for crafting a masterpiece, and soon, is already apparent.

by Eric Dennis

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