The Rural Alberta Advantage, known simply as The RAA to their fans, were heralded as the best unsigned band in Canada a little more than four years ago. The Toronto three-piece – comprised of lead singer/guitarist Nils Edenloff, synth player/backing vocalist Amy Cole and drummer Paul Banwatt – were signed up by Saddle Creek Records in 2009, the label founded by the Oberst brothers in Omaha, Nebraska in the mid-90s. One of these brothers, Conor, is usually known as Bright Eyes and he knows a thing or two about good songwriting. So when Saddle Creek made it their first order of business with the RAA to re-release their début LP Hometowns it was already clear that there was quality to be found in the Ontario group’s blend of indie folk-rock.
Preconceptions aside, the first record showed admirable promise; although still blemished with the occasional inexperienced mistake, tracks like ‘Don’t Haunt This Place’ carried an intangible charm, combining slightly haunting vocal melodies with lyrics about small-town life and the joys and despairs it brings.
Cole, Banwatt and Edenloff’s second LP, Departing, is largely an extension of that first record: it’s a little more polished and is mixed far better than their sometimes off-kilter début, but it simultaneously resists the temptation that so often afflicts bands releasing their first label-recorded album, and stays true to the band’s original sound rather than trying to over-produce it. The garage-band charm of Hometowns was a large part of the group’s appeal, and thankfully the RAA have avoided the pitfalls that label recognition can sometimes bring with it.
The first thing that becomes clear is the aforementioned mixing superiority of this sophomore record. Each track is better balanced and producer Roger Leavens (who also produced Hometowns) deserves a lot of credit for how good the album sounds: Leavens has managed to deftly accentuate the melody lines and crisp up the drum sound without sacrificing the slightly angst-ridden punch which helped make the RAA’s début so memorable. Of course, it’s still the excellent product the band themselves turn out which is the central attraction, but producers are all too rarely credited when they deserve to be, so here’s a glass to you Mr. Leavens.
Equally, an album can be fantastically well-produced and still be ghastly: listening to most current pop acts will inform us of this. The RAA’s style is sometimes sparse, often deeply personal, but what the band have accomplished brilliantly on Departing is to augment their sound’s power and communicativeness. A song like ‘North Star’, which is beautifully carved from a simple central hook – “the north star/is guiding you back into my heart” – begins as a piano-and-drums track, but then adds in a subsidiary synth line which turns it from simply a very good song to a truly memorable quasi-epic.
Indeed, Edenloff’s lyrics are impressive throughout and manage to be at once simple and fresh. ‘Stamp’ and ‘Two Lovers’ particularly stand out in this department, the former’s lament of “the hardest thing about this love is that you’re never coming back” perhaps the album’s most emotional line, and one which is delivered with the appropriate combination of fury and melancholy.
What’s also impressive about Departing is that it contains a myriad of styles without ever feeling like a facile showcase: the RAA can move from rhythmic and angry to tender and intimate in the space of a song, but the record doesn’t feel disjointed as a result. Edenloff’s vocals are certainly an acquired taste, but when backed by Cole’s gentler tones they make for a fitting narration to these tales of Canadian winter and personal heartbreak. Banwatt’s drumlines often act as a platform for the melody, but his real strength is knowing when to drive songs forward, and his pounding style is at the heart of ‘Tornado ’87’ and ‘Muscle Relaxants’.
It’s an impressive return from one of Canada’s most hotly-tipped talents, and Departing accomplishes the rare feat of taking a band’s sound to a new level without sacrificing what made it listenable and unique in the first place. Although perhaps short of one more showstopper, the songs occasionally drift into something of a mélange, it’s a hugely enjoyable and fresh album. Final track ‘Good Night’ at one point declares “Good Night/To the Alberta Advantage”, but we hope it won’t take them too long to rouse from the well-earned slumber their sophomore record has earned them. A cracking album.
Best tracks: ‘North Star’, ‘Stamp’, ‘Barnes’ Yard’, ‘Two Lovers’.
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