Talk about a long time coming. While The Rural Alberta Advantage’s debut record, Hometowns, will finally find its way into stores later this week, keen underground music fans have been spinning (and touting) the disc for well over six months now. Leavened by a major push from the Emusic.com Selects program, the Canadian three-piece have been one of indie-rock’s worst kept secrets over the last year, the previously unsigned band purposefully staving off any contract talks until Saddle Creek finally reeled them in back in April. Based out of Toronto and accompanied by an already well-established fan base, the RAA finally enter the indie-label fray with a record so unabashedly earnest and reflective that lead singer/songwriter Nils Edenloff might well have put music to his high school diary and then simply let it rip.
Having grown up near the oil fields of rural Canada, Edenloff cites the stark contrast between big city life and his comparatively quiet upbringing as his main source of inspiration for Hometowns, the frontman admitting to being at constant battle with the incongruous leanings of progression and nostalgia, finding himself “perpetually torn between the exhilaration of the unknown and the sobering memories of home”. If this sentiment comes across at all puerile or childish for a man in his late twenties to be writing about, then this is only true on the most ostensible of levels. Certainly an entire album devoted to homesickness could be construed as a slightly stunted emotional statement, but not any more so than would a grown man centering his would-be opus on a boyhood fascination with Anne Frank (which is actually a fairly apropos comparison for better or worse, which we’ll get to in just a moment).
Musically, the heart of Hometowns comes in the form of a handful of ballads, most of them lush with sweeping orchestrations. Songs such as “Frank, AB” and “Drain the Blood” rely on a set of proficient harmonies between Edenloff and multi-instrumentalist Amy Cole, using a pulsating acoustic underpinning to accentuate a barrage of keyboard hooks that provide the record with an almost hymnic air. All of these songs fit Edenloff’s basic conceit of a communal upbringing, all the while flirting with a purposefully naïve and youthful perspective (both musically and thematically) that has drawn some criticism for being rather derivative of Jeff Mangum and his cohorts in Neutral Milk Hotel. Still, while such comparisons are surely fair (especially on the horn-heavy “Luciana”), Edenloff’s raspy vocals manage more than enough authenticity to rise above any obvious influences within an extremely concentrated and cohesive narrative that succeeds almost entirely on its own merits.
Besides, to categorize this record solely as a folksy sort of elegy isn’t exactly fair. While thematically heavy, Hometowns still manages to pop with an odd but wholly welcome energy. For a collection hinged almost entirely upon acoustic guitars and doleful synthesizers, songs such as “Four Night Rider” and “The Deadroads” help to counterbalance the ballads by riding a blistering drumbeat (provided adeptly by drummer Paul Banwatt) into a territory that wouldn’t preclude a few heads from bobbing in an audience full of first time listeners.
Ultimately what saves Hometowns from over saturating its audience with sappy sentimentality is its pure, unbridled honesty. Whether or not its listeners can relate to Edenloff’s reverence of community and collective personality, they won’t for one second doubt the songster’s own assuredness in the pivotal role a town can play in shaping or molding a person into who or what they’ll ultimately become. Coupled with more than a few great songs, this earnestness make Hometowns easily digestible, the sort of record perfect for an evening of introspective kicks.
By Daniel Crown