Canadian indie rockers The Rural Alberta Advantage really struck gold with their debut album Hometowns, going from being unsigned when they made the album to having it reissued on the Saddle Creek label, home of Bright Eyes. Last week they released the followup Departing. Having the pressure of high expectations placed on them this time around, could they come through and deliver more musical excellence? The answer is a definite yes.
Departing is ten more tracks of the RAA's signature sound - Nils Edenloff's Jeff Mangum-esque vocals over purposefully strummed acoustic guitar and propulsive keyboard and percussion. The RAA are a three-person band, and they don't put anything extraneous into their music; every part of each song feels like it should be there. This lends a real vitality to the music.
The first five songs on the album are all quite good, but generally not truly exceptional. If the rest of the album continued in the same way it might be seen as something of a sophomore slump. Instead, the album really picks up in the second half as the ensuing two tracks, "Stamp" and "Tornado '87," are easily two of the band's strongest ever. When I saw the RAA live in July 2009, I was particularly struck by the intensity and precision of Paul Banwatt's drumming. His talents are on full display in "Stamp." The video for this song is worth watching. I rarely find music videos very interesting, but this one is hilarious, and it's a great song too.
Album closer "Good Night" is another standout track. It's one where the vocals are the focus - Edenloff's incisive, nasal lead vocals and Amy Cole's pretty backing vocals as the perfect counterpoint. In concert, the band has a tradition of stepping off from the stage to play this song among the audience, sans microphones. It's an amazing thing to experience - here's a video I found from the show I attended, although being there in person was far better than watching it on YouTube. The album version does a remarkable job of recreating that. It sounds like a really good live recording, closing out the album wonderfully.
As a whole, Departing is not much of a departure in sound from Hometowns. The band does let up from their typical frenetic pace on more of the tracks of the second album than on its predecessor, but all the emotional intensity is still present. None of the songs on Departing would sound out of place on the RAA's debut. When the music is so good, though, this isn't really anything to complain about. (Maybe if their next album or two also lack much evolution, then I would start to be bothered.) Actually, my biggest complaint about Departing is that it's too short, and anytime you can say that it's pretty certain that you have a good album on your hands.