The Rural Alberta Advantage’s debut remains a long-distance collect call to a past marked by angst, energy, heartbreak, and harmonies.
Hey, who remembers eMusic? Now there’s a blast from the past. Well before Bandcamp started dominating digital music, eMusic was the go-to online marketplace for a wealth of new music, often coming directly from musicians themselves. Case in point: the Rural Alberta Advantage. They self-released their debut album, Hometowns, in early 2008 and put it up on eMusic. By November, Hometowns earned the band eMusic’s Artist of the Month. That set off a firestorm of attention and buzz that saw the band sign to Saddle Creek in the U.S. and Paper Bag Records in Canada and their album of gritty acoustic guitars, wildly unexpected electronics, and unrelenting rhythms in the hands of a lot of music fans.
I’d almost all but forgotten the role eMusic played in the Rural Alberta Advantage’s rise until I started looking back at press and reviews from back in 2009 when the labels re-released Hometowns. The only thing more common than seeing an eMusic reference in an article or review from around that time was comparing the RAA to Neutral Milk Hotel and connecting the dots between the two band’s front people, Nils Edenloff and Jeff Mangum, respectively. I understood the appeal of this trio. Their marriage of brash DIY punk attitude to alt-country vibes me captivated right from the start (an original handmade Hometowns CD is still a most treasured gem in my music collection).
But honestly, Hometowns isn’t an album I’ve returned to all that frequently in the intervening twelve odd years. So when word came out about a limited edition 2020 Record Store Day re-release, I wasn’t immediately intrigued. Save for the stellar production and songwriting on 2011’s Departing, the band’s subsequent albums (2014’s Mended With Gold, and 2017’s The Wild) produced diminishing returns for me thrill-wise. But we music lovers are nothing if not a fickle bunch. Twelve years is a long time to be loyal to a band in an ever-changing environment that thrusts the next big thing down your throat before you’ve barely had time to finish digesting the last big buzz band. So I started flipping through the archive of writing I did on my previous blog to jog my memory and spark back up some of that initial RAA love.
I was surprised to realize that there wasn’t another band in 2008 I wrote more about on Quick Before It Melts than the RAA. They came up more often in blog posts about other bands than they did in ones devoted solely to themselves. I often cited them as being one of the best bands working in Canada at the time and repeatedly referenced Hometowns as being amongst my favourite records of 2008. And in checking back in with myself in 2020 and revisiting Hometowns, I remembered why. It’s palpable right off the top when Amy Cole plays a single organ note in the intro to “The Ballad of the RAA”. That ringing sound, reminiscent of a landline telephone dial tone, sets the stage for what’s to come: a long-distance collect call to a not-so-distant past marked by angst and energy, heartbreak and harmonies.
“We invariably / left the prairies,” sings Edenloff in the album’s opening moment, quickly qualifying that the departure was “in our heart / since we never moved an inch.” That same sense of restlessness pervades much of Hometowns. It pops up later on “Edmonton”, when again he sings: “Going away again / from this Alberta pen / but I will never / try to forget your Northern eyes.” It’s not so much what he sings as it is the way Edenloff sings it. His gruff, nasal growl often feels like the emotional manifestation of drummer Paul Banwatt’s superhuman beats and rhythms. While Banwatt finds the most complicated way of moving these songs from points A to B, multi-instrumentalist Amy Cole colours outside the lines her bandmates lay down. The trio’s live power has long been legendary thanks in large part to Cole’s ability to play multiple instruments in a single song, filling the room with sound. On record, those arrangements come off subtly but are just as effective: think the mournful, hymn-like organ on “In the Summertime”. That song, in particular, the last of Hometowns’ thirteen vignettes, is particularly stirring. Arguably the record’s slowest, most ballad-like moment, it’s always felt like a moment to catch one’s breath after the spirited dozen songs that preceded it. It’s the perfect musical bookend, codifying the Rural Alberta Advantage’s playbook in such a way that you instantly want to start this nostalgic trip all over again.
The more I revisited Hometowns for this review, the more I remembered why I fell in love with the Rural Alberta Advantage. Beyond the buzz, hype, and press was this gem of a record, a genuine diamond in the rough. Its blend of punk and pop stirred into countrified chaos still feels brash and bold, but an overlaying beauty and gentleness balance that. It’s essentially grace. No matter how far your heart wants to take you, no matter where you end up living in the world — even if it’s in your own mind — home will always have a hold on you. Your hometown, and the Rural Alberta Advantage’s Hometowns, will always be there waiting for your return.