Mediocre songwriting sabotages raucous folkies
The cover photo of The Rural Alberta Advantage’s second album shows a stark, windblown snowcape shot from the rear window a car. The image is blurry, gray and white, the perfect metaphor for the somewhat featureless sonic squall that is found inside.
Toronto residents now more than half a decade removed from their western Canadian roots, RAA whip up a raw, insistent, and stripped-down folk music that is enormously appealing on the surface. Singer/songwriter Nils Edenloff is a ringer for Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, and depending on your tolerance for/appreciation of nasal, off-key vocals, that can be a deal breaker. I’m fine with it, particularly because it perfectly complements the ragged folk bluster of bandmates Amy Cole and Paul Banwatt.
The songwriting is another matter. Where debut album Hometowns was saturated with specific references to Alberta, with little cinematic details that helped to flesh out the songs, Departing relies too frequently on stock winter imagery and generic love laments. It all results in a big, portentous sound and fury, signifying “I could hold on to your lovin’ tonight.”
It’s too bad because the songs, particularly those on the uniformly strong second half of the album, are big, blustery anthems that The Arcade Fire would be proud to write. “Stamp” and “Tornado ’87,” which feature Cole’s Régine Chassagne impression, are raucous gems, and closer “Good Night” offers a gentle, off-kilter coda. I’m cautiously optimistic that the next time out Edenloff will sharpen his powers of observation and ruthlessly shed the cliches. In the meantime, Departing is promising but ultimately disappointing.