It’s not just a clever name. The Rural Alberta Advantage may hail from Toronto, but the group’s frontman, Nils Edenloff once lived a few provinces to the west, in Edmonton, Alberta. Though one certainly couldn’t blame him for trading his town for one three times its size, Edenloff nonetheless never lost his affection for the burg from which he sprang, and wrote a series of songs about and inspired by his former Alberta home, ultimately teaming up with Paul Banwatt and Amy Cole to form a band whose name also tipped its hat to the fair land of Alberta. It’s all perfectly charming, and certainly plenty of songwriters have written about cities they’ve lived or visited; that’s nothing particularly novel in itself. However, Hometowns, The Rural Alberta Advantage’s debut album, is such a sublimely written and passionately performed album that even the geographically challenged may come to form an attachment to Edenloff’s homeland.
Hometowns isn’t a particularly fussy record; it’s not fraught with overblown arrangements, and each of its tracks is relatively straightforward and concise. The longest track here reaches a less-than-staggering 3:49, and the group ends each track well before outstaying their welcome. Yet within these humbly arranged, artfully brief tracks, The Rural Alberta Advantage make a surprisingly expansive sonic playground for themselves, ricocheting from a string-laden, heartstring-tugging ballad like “The Ballad of the RAA” to a folky, hand-clapping, foot-stomping hoedown in “Rush Apart” in a span of only two tracks.
Economically similar to Japandroids, though stylistically different, the interplay between Edenloff, Banwatt and Cole is strikingly tight and intense, particularly in a song like “Drain the Blood,” in which the group’s indie folk approach rocks harder than any of their easy RIYL tags may allow, Banwatt pounding away with explosive fills as Edenloff wails with an impassioned determination, “Oh, I’m really trying, to make it through the night.” Banwatt could even be considered a secret weapon of sorts for The Rural Alberta Advantage, as his drum work is unexpectedly furious and focused. His fills turn “The Dethbridge in Lethbridge” into a kickass, rustic punk rocker, while adding an extra touch of muscle to “The Deadroads,” which would be an entirely different song without him.
Kickass though Banwatt may be, he’s but one essential part of an impressive whole, and when all of the trio’s best elements fall into place, the results are transcendent. “Don’t Haunt This Place” isn’t one of the album’s loudest tracks, but certainly one that creates a powerful emotional rush, with Cole and Edenloff beautifully harmonizing heartbreaking lines like “the things we never had/ the things we wish would come back/ because we need this oh, so bad.” Similarly, “Frank, AB” is a gorgeous and curiously danceable standout, laying ethereal synth melodies beneath Edenloff’s lyrics inspired by the town’s 1903 landslide, reaching a tear-jerking conclusion as the beats fade out beneath the anguished cry of “I’ll hold you forever.” And “Sleep All Day” initially recalls Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater,” but builds into something more intricate and unique as Cole’s vocal harmonies and Edenloff’s guitar twang begin to escalate.
Whether he’s crooning with regret about the losses suffered in a landslide, or anxiously yelping “let’s crash at your place tonight,” Nils Edenloff, along with Amy Cole and Paul Banwatt, creates an atmosphere of such palpable emotion, sympathetic and human, that it’s hard not to be won over. What’s more, that emotion is filtered through spectacular melodies, meticulously arranged with deceptively slender means. On paper it may come off as an unremarkable indie pop album, but in practice Hometowns is a joyous and stunning work, and a damn impressive first shot from a band showing limitless promise for the future. Maybe rural Alberta has an advantage after all.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.