Ignoring the obvious and almost laughable Jeff Mangum vocal impressions... The Rural Alberta Advantage are a Canadian Indie Pop/Indie Rock three piece. They released a string of demo albums leading up to that well received 2008 album, Hometowns. They take influence from a number of sources around the Indie spectrum, naming a few.. Neutral Milk Hotel, The Magnetic Fields, Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens. Being a fan of the outstanding Hometimes, I was looking forward to the release of Departing. This said, I was surprised by the lack of support leading up to and following the release date in March.
We're hit with a well produced acoustic guitar and slow, but heavy drumming on the opening song 'Two Lovers'. This song has lovely piano and a truly fantastic drumming pattern. It's not too heavy, but it's loud enough to make an impact above lead singer Nils Endenloff's vocals. Although the vocals are very Mangum like, he still adds his own, Canadian touch. Without this, the band wouldn't be as special or original. Not that I'm calling them original, far from it.. They're just another Indie Rock band in my vision.
A topic most relative to Indie Rock/Pop is love and heartbreak. These themes are dotted around Departing, especially on the second track, 'The Breakup'. With energetic, dense drumming, it allows a melancholic piano riff to take place alongside synthesized strings and Nils high pitched vocals. You can actually here bits of bass during the chorus, other than that.. It's invisible. We don't hear guitar either in this song, interesting. It's the same on the third track, 'Under The Knife'. It's evident RAA have taken a more melodic, electronic influence into their music. Leaving out both bass and guitar to play piano and synthesizer. It's an interesting development for this album because Hometowns had lot's of guitar twinges and compact instrumentation. We don't hear any of this on Departing.
The brighter and Arcade Fire-esque 'Muscle Relaxants', uses a straightforward guitar riff with some distortion and chorus. Combining it with that simple progression and unitary song structure, where the bass, synth, guitar and vocals all follow the same pattern, with the drumming keeping the time signature relevant. it's a little different for 'Northern Star', this track has a slow piano riff with cold lyrics and an effectless drum kit. Finally an Indie band that don't add effects to their drums.
The songs are very nostalgic to Nils. He takes what he's learnt from life in Toronto and uses his past memories to create that vision of a lost, past life in the Canadian countryside. Some songs really point this out like 'Stamp' and 'Tornado 87'. I like reading the lyrics and I think Nils expresses his feelings rather well using RAA as his output, although 2/3rds of the band originate from Toronto and all the songs are about Alberta.
It goes from strength to strength. First with the percussive 'Tornado 87', then with the fast paced guitar track 'Barnes Yard', which is my person favourite on this album. It features a very stylistic vocal and the progression sounds a lot like early Kings of Leon, I'm thinking 'The Bucket'. I've been craving for this song, the whole album is one light easy going meaningless piece of music (to me), but this track was a relief. You have to have at least one fast paced, hard hitting song on an Indie Rock album and this is just that. Fast chord changes, speedy vocals and actual bass.
'Coldest Days' is one of the sadder, mellow songs on the album. It has very sparse guitar work and reverbed piano, but again the vocals are prime In The Aeroplane Over The Sea-core. So It's hard what to make of it. On one hand you have this beautiful lyrical song with great instrumentation, but then you hear that high pitched voice and you cant picture anything else, other than Jeff Mangum in a Christmas sweater holding a chicken.
The album ends with one of the more atmospheric songs on the album, 'Good Night'. It's a nice little happy Canadian song with a bright acoustic guitar riff and supporting vocals by keyboardist Amy Cole. Who up to this point has only made brief vocal appearances, unlike the debut, Hometowns where she sang on several tracks. This song has lovely drumming which sounds so fresh that it's not been dubbed with reverb, because this whole song sounds like it's been recorded in one take in an empty factory.
I do like this album, but it's nothing compared to the debut. Where the debut had compact, impressive tracks. Departing just doesn't sound full. This could be due to a lack of instrumentation, but in my opinion I don't think they've fully advanced as a band, since the debut came out in 2008. That's a real shame because I was very excited for this album and it doesn't hold it's weight well. I'm really surprised about the lack of attention this album has received. They're not the biggest band in the world, not even a household name in Canada.. However I was expecting a bigger critical reception due to Hometowns ultimate strengh. None the less, this is a straightforward, 30 minute album with great lyrics and brilliant musicianship, it's a real shame they couldn't give anything more captivating, but I'll settle for the Mangum vocals.