Forget Your Northern Eyes

Rural Albert Advantage - Hometowns
My recent Canadian excursion got me re-listening to one of my favorite albums, The Rural Alberta Advantage's Hometowns. In truth, The RAA almost never leaves my queue, but being closer to the context in which they wrote this album urged me to give it a new close listen. When I think of Canadian indie rock, I think of this band more than any other. Sure, others like Broken Social Scene are infinitely bigger, but The RAA is distinctly Canadian in their lyrics, themes and imagery. You may not get the reference of "Frank, AB" or understand "purple lights at the Leg," but you get the basic feeling, and begin ot get what that might mean to hometown boys & girls.

I've also been hankering to do some music writing, because it's immediate and fun, but there haven't been any brand new releases that have spurred a lot of thoughts and deconstruction. There have been a lot that spurred thoughts in hindsight, but if I wasn't going to worry about timeliness any longer, maybe I should just go back to 2009 and talk about a favorite.

Hometowns is, centrally but not totally, about a change in location and a change in relationship. The bits and pieces of history are easy to gather: There is a guy, a girl, and a distance between them. The guy moves from far north of Edmonton to the bustling city of Toronto. What follows is relationship turbulence, the burden of disconnection from everything you've known, and the question of what to do when you're stranded.

We invariably left the prairies in my heart
(Track 1, The Ballad of the RAA)

The narrative points are only half the appeal. The other half is their particular brand of minimalist flourish. They get by on mournful melodies, warm and understated keyboards, and drums that sing. Overall, the sound is only a few notches above a bare bones acoustic set, but they come together in strong ways to be more than the sum of their parts.

Nothing exemplifies this more than the opening track and band anthem, "The Ballad of the RAA." It's an origin story.

Swapped Garneau for Dundas
My parents for your dad
The Rockies for The Great Lakes
And my heart pounds, as you say

It's an urgent introduction that gives you a taste of their style before it really explodes in later tracks. The emphasis should be on taste: it's a 3 minute tune that stops before it really gets started. Still, every time it starts up, I can't help but feel engaged and excited. It's the sound of some important beginning. The secret ingredient in a lot of their songs is Paul Banwatt's brilliant, high speed, all-tricks drumming. He squeezes as many hits as he can into every beat sometimes, like a frenzied panic, as if he is going to run out of seconds to beat over.

For the intro, he starts off simple and builds slowly, until the 2:20 mark he's drumming circles around the tempo of the keyboard, just because he can, like something out of Aphex Twin. I've seen him live, and as expected, he's not 100% on the mark and the tempo might shift in mid song so he doesn't die, but you can't blame him. In the studio, he's still got the mind for drum composition and I have to applaud him for trying such exhaustive nutso ideas.

But back to that narrative: it is most interesting because the default mode for love songs tell us either about the heartbreak or the optimism. While Hometowns leans towards the darker end of the spectrum, it's really more about consequences than sadness. Love can make you take risks, and a song like "Edmonton" looks at the character when he his gamble has yielded only loss.

What'll I do if you never want me back?
Come with me, come back, we will live again.
What if I'm only satisfied when I'm at home?
Sitting in a city that will never let me go.
(Track 12, Edmonton)

"Edmonton" is one of the most moving songs on the album because it encompasses the conflict so well. It's strictly ruminations, with no actual happenings or progress or movement -- just thinking aloud. As an internal monologue, it explores the central conflict of their relationship, and digs up the doubt we don't always have the bravery to face. It's not just fear of worst case scenarios, or their new situation, but fear that the speaker isn't really happy. The line "What if I'm only satisfied when I'm at home?" is oft repeated and established and then suddenly, as if having an epiphany, he sings:

What if I'm only satisfied when I'm alone?

It's a heavy moment, the kind of emotional turn that can be hard to build into a song, more natural to a literary short story. Despite all this, the last half of the song turns into an optimistic reaffirmation, maybe as positive denial to choke back all those doubts, or maybe as a flashback of better times.

Gone away again
From this Alberta pen
And I will never try
to forget your northern eyes

The masterwork of the album, and the prime example of their style, is in the first single, "Don't Haunt This Place." Once again: Holy shit, them drums. It's a machine gun, a constant, never-ending solo. Keyboards and well placed strings just underscore the hard beat, giving it a sheen of melody that is simply gorgeous when supported by the vocals of Nils and Amy.

I know it's right, I know it's okay
And I'd like to see you now and again,
This was hard, it was dumb, we should do this again
Give ourselves some time, ten years from the day
(Track 4, Don't Haunt This Place)

This is a good time to point out how bite-sized so many of these songs are. Nothing over four minutes. This single clocks in at 2 minutes and 37 seconds. There's something about quick hits of emotive music that makes them all the more enticing. I remember when The White Stripes blew up and into pop consciousness with "Fell in Love With a Girl" and how its abrupt end only made you hungry to hear it again. It's the same M&M phenomena: you think you can eat a ton of them because it's so small.

Like any good album, they run the gauntlet of emotional and sonic extremes while keeping to the in-house style they have built for themselves. It's a weird balancing act, of creating diversity within a limited confines. They have their uptempo anger ("Dethbridge in Lethbridge") and their desolate quietude ("Sleep All Day") on lock. They can divert from their navel-gazing with historical tragedies ("Frank, AB").

And I shouldn't sleep all day
And waste time with you
Because I know we're taking a break
And I know we both need the room
So wipe the sleep from your eyes,
And I'll wipe them out of mine too.
And if you try to hold on,
Then I'll try to hold on to you.
(Track 10, Sleep All Day)

Mostly, I loved this album because so rarely do I find a band that writes lyrics the way I like them. Full of heart, high stakes, and simply laid bare. While there are, every day, great new sounds that I will attach to and enjoy, very rarely will a song hit that lyrical sweet spot for me. Not that lyricists are bad these days; I'm just a sucker for this particular school of songwriting. Personal, confessional, accessible and a focus not on cleverness or subtlety, but catharsis.

I found Hometowns at a time in my life when I was going through a lot of change. I was graduating college, for one, and moving back home. It was a weird end of a life chapter and a regression that our generation has to deal with increasingly. But I was so attached to a person back there, in my old college town and, for any number of reasons, things only seemed to be getting more turbulent. To say simply: it was a troubling and stressful time, and I should have been different.

I know what you're thinking: "That sounds almost nothing like the circumstances of Hometowns! How are you drawing a line between your personal shit and the real, heavier shit of The Rural Alberta Advantage?" But that's the point. In the world of writing-based music, where empathy is king, there is no greater accomplishment than universality in specificity. When you, as an artist, can be as personal and detailed about your life yet identify with other lives, some bigger, some smaller, then you have done your job well. The RAA gets a triple A credibility rating in this. You may never go to Edmonton, you may never uproot your life for another, and you may never find yourself stranded, because it's about the big emotions that come with those specific situations.

If you've ever felt nervous about big steps, ever felt the weight of hindsight, or ever let down and been let down, this album runs a road through your life.