Talk about a whirl of hype. Many people have been listening to The Rural Alberta Advantage for a good year now. Whether that was through legal or illegal means is another topic all on its own; their debut album, Hometowns, was self-released a year ago. For many artists that follow this path (see: The Antlers), they sign with a label and a re-issue is set in place. And now, we have the proper release of this Canadian-based band’s ultimately solid but largely spoiled album.
The hype was somewhat warranted, the music is every bit of emotionally-charged indie we’d expect but for all the qualms it makes to be original and unique, it is not. For one, Nils Edenloff’s voice sounds like the cruel incarnation of Jeff Mangum’s shoddy voice. The opening drum machine on the confusingly titled “The Ballad of The RAA” leads into crass yelping by Edenloff that could send anyone running for cover.
Rounding out this trio is multi-instrumentalist Amy Cole and drummer Paul Banwatt. They both provide timely touches here and there but for all intents and purposes, this is Edenloff’s show. Banwatt may be the band’s best musician though; his drumming is even-tempered and provides some variation to Edenloff’s sharp songwriting. And this is where the major folly occurs: strong pop songwriting that just doesn’t have the time to go anywhere with how abruptly nearly each and every single song ends.
“Luciana” is built around some heavy distorted guitars and Banwatt’s furiously frenetic drumming. Sliding from hi-hat to snare interceptions, he scans back as Edenloff sings his sordid love song. It’s driving, propelling, and interesting and at nearly three minutes long, is a decent length. But just as it grows, with varied amounts of horns, voices and instruments, it all fades out: the word underwhelming immediately comes to mind. And then you take the album’s closer, “In the Summertime.” Here is the sweetly performed ballad in fine form, with some tambourine, organ and Edenloff’s best singing on the album. It’s arranged in a dandy manner, even allowing Cole’s poor singing to take a turn and then, it ends. Not only is it the least bit complimentary to leave the listener with that as an ending but Cole’s voice does the music no justice, it’s off-tune, throaty and airy.
Hometowns is a frustrating listen because of all of this. It’s not bad music; it actually reaches some terrific heights. “Don’t Haunt this Place” is one of the album’s shining moments. Edenloff’s singing is scaled back in accordance to the music’s strings and Banwatt’s cymbal crashing percussion. And even when Cole’s tone-death singing chimes in, she earnestly follows along to hold on. Then there is the brave guitar on “Drain the Blood,” muscular and intrepid, it’s the backbone for the entire scene. Cutting away to reveal only it’s skeletal frame, the ensuing breakthrough of crashing drums and Edenloff’s visceral singing is fantastic.
These are all good things for sure but although I haven’t mentioned it, even the best songs have a deliberately awkward way of ending. Whether it be a decrease in tempo on a song that doesn’t call for it (“The Ballad of The RAA”) or an unexpected close (“The Deathbridge in Lethbridge.”) But even the album’s best moments, like the swirling growth of “Edmonton” still just make up for music that while being executed in striking fashion, lacks the diversity or magnitude to convey greatness.
Yes, the hype surrounding The Rural Alberta Advantage is somewhat worthy. But for the most part, they have a lot of growing to do. Hometowns may not be the amazing album some had hoped for but it is an honest debut on many levels: sometimes great, most of the time decent and a good while just being there.
“Don’t Haunt this Place” by The Rural Alberta Advantage