Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Rural Alberta Advantage: Departing

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.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Zoey Van Goey: Propeller Vs. Wings and The Cage Was Unlocked All Along

I've been meaning to write something about Zoey Van Goey for some time now. I discovered the Scottish indie pop band close to a year ago, and really fell in love with their debut album The Cage Was Unlocked All Along, but never got around to writing about it. Now that they've released their sophomore effort, Propeller Vs. Wings, I figured it would be worth covering both albums in one post.

The first piece of information you might want to know about Zoey Van Goey is that Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian produced their first single ("Foxtrot Vandals"). Now, Zoey Van Goey are hardly Belle and Sebastian sound-alikes, but like Belle and Sebastian, they play indie pop music that I would describe as, well, rather charming. Both bands are also from Glasgow. So if you like Belle and Sebastian, you might want to check out Zoey Van Goey.

The Cage Was Unlocked All Along was released in 2009. When I put together my list of favorite albums from that year, I had not yet heard of Zoey Van Goey. Looking back now, they would in fact occupy second place on that list; the album is that good. It's hard to name standout tracks; the songs are almost uniformly very good from start to finish. This is impressive for such a young band; also impressive is Zoey Van Goey's ability to vary their sound from song to song and excel in each. Witness "We All Hid In Basements," containing a heavy guitar part near the end of the track that would sound right at home on a post-rock album. It's followed right up by the beautifully dreamy "Two White Ghosts," and then the more straightforward but incredibly catchy, handclap-laden pop of "Foxtrot Vandals." Clever lyrics, lush instrumentation and girl/boy vocals add to the irresistible nature of Zoey Van Goey's music. The Cage is a fantastic debut that indie pop fans should not miss.

After such a strong first album, I was very much looking forward to the followup. Propeller Vs. Wings picks up nicely where its predecessor left off. In general, it's more of the same sort of charming indie pop. Kim Moore's vocals are even stronger on Propeller than on The Cage; she especially shows off her vocal pipes on "Escape Maps." All in all, though, I have to admit I'm slightly disappointed in the album. Don't get me wrong, it's very good, it's just hurt by how great its predecessor was. There is what I would consider a mis-step on third-to-last track "Robot Tyrannosaur" (The Cage's weakest track was also in the third-to-last slot, but "Nae Wonder" was a much smaller mis-step comparatively.) I don't want to focus too much on negativity, though, as the album is well worth listening to. And while "Robot Tyrannosaur" has lyrics that are a bit, well, dumb, amusingly affecting lyrics abound on other tracks, such as "You Told the Drunks I Knew Karate":

I do the dumbest things for you
Why do I do the dumbest things for you?
I almost broke my collar bone
I didn't care, you were the most exciting thing I'd ever known

I go back to that word "charming." I think that's the best way to describe Zoey Van Goey's music. It's also consistently catchy, fun, and at times beautiful. I very strongly recommend The Cage Was Unlocked All Along, and if you like that album, definitely check out Propeller Vs. Wings as well. Each album has a free track available on Amazon:

The Best Treasure Stays Buried
The Cake and Eating It