Second Look: Hometowns
by Ben Resnik
I am obsessed with Jeff Mangum.
I search out every crumb and kernel of information about the man I can find, and even have a saved search on Twitter dedicated to him and Neutral Milk Hotel. While few things turn up on that search besides “Jeff Mangum is great” and, more recently, “OH MAH GAWD HE’S BACK!!11!1!,” every now and then something interesting appears. One such thing I found was a snippet of a Twitter conversation in which a band called The Rural Alberta Advantage was compared to Jeff Mangum. Skeptical, I got myself a copy of their 2009 release Hometowns.
While it was no Aeroplane, after listening to Hometowns I had high expectations for the Canadian pseudo-folk group. I got a vibe similar to the one I feel with Neutral Milk Hotel’s first album, On Avery Island; it was not perfect by any means, but set the stage for future greatness well within the band’s capabilities. Now the RAA has released its second album, Departing, to slightly underwhelming reviews (read Mike’s here). The consensus is that the release is a plateau for the band. While it is not a poor release by any means, it doesn’t take the risks that would catapult lead singer Nils Edenloff and his band from modest success to indie-rock stardom. And to better understand why, perhaps now is the time to look again to Hometowns for clues about where the Advantage could and should be going.
The opener, “The Ballad of the RAA”, feels like the band’s native element. The lyrics are given the attentively polished characteristic of folk songs, even as the sound wraps itself in a warm blanket of synth pads. To top off is Paul Banwatt’s mood-setting drumming, which feels technically miles ahead of the other instrumentation. The disparity manages to work to the band’s advantage, and this is where the Neutral Milk Hotel comparisons are most accurate; Jeremy Barnes was a virtuoso drummer, which allowed the other members to explore an astute musical passion for melody while resting on a solid foundation of technical skill. The same is true here. The merits of Edenloff’s off-key yelping and the simple instrumentation are made acceptable and appreciable when balanced against Banwatt’s powerhouse drumming.
The high point of the album is the heart-wrenching “Don’t Haunt This Place.” Edenloff’s songwriting is at its most poignant, with lyrics like “And the things we never had, and the things we wish would come back/ Because we need this oh so bad, because I need this oh so bad.” The drums keep punching, and the instrumentals lend a perfect backdrop to the song’s vivid emotion. Best of all, it is repetitive in all the right ways. The RAA have gotten some flak for being repetitive, especially since Departing. But on songs like this, that repetition is an integral part, and magnifies its power instead of diminishing it.
That being said, repetition – both of lyric and of structure – is the Advantage’s major flaw, and can be seen in any number of songs on either album. The band has found something it’s good at and is sticking with it. It is first seen on “The Dethbridge to Lethbridge”, which is done very well; the vocals are strong, the lyrics are solid, and the dominant drums and simple guitar gives it the feel of a head-bobbing indie-rock standard. But then it continues. “The Deadroads,” “Drain the Blood,” “Luciana;” are all all solid songs, but grow pale over time due to their lack of variance among the subject matter; the fact that they play successively does not help. On this their debut album, and even on Departing, the songs work well, but it’s setting a bad precedent. Critics not pushing them to explore their subject and style have made the RAA a little too comfortable with what they’ve got.
The closing song, “In the Summertime,” shows what the band is capable of. The drum supports instead of drives, and the focus falls back to where it should be: Edenloff’s vocals, which are as thoughtful and full of insight as anywhere else on the album. One of the pitfalls of any good band is resting on its laurels, and the RAA has been cursed by finding a style it is good at, but not great. Still, the band has the component parts for greatness. Edenloff has a wonderful voice with an amateur appeal, along the lines of Mangum or Kristian Matsson, and the words with which to use it. Departing has gotten the chiding that Hometowns did not, and that any gifted child needs when they don’t do their homework. Now that the Rural Alberta Advantage has been shown it is prone to human mistakes, it can get back to the fresh, powerful articulation of humanity that it is so very capable of.
RIYL: The Mountain Goats, Dan Mangan, R.E.M., The Wooden Sky, Arms, We Were Promised Jetpacks, Frightened Rabbit, The Antlers, Said the Whale, Harlem Shakes, Titus Andronicus, Phoenix, The French Kicks, Plant and Animals, The Weakerthans, Freelance Whales, Blind Pilot, The Acorn