Reviews

Hometowns

Author: David Berry
06/25/2009 | Vue Weekly | www.vueweekly.com | Feature
Alberta isn't the easiest of places in which to live. Our governing dynasty employs people who make national headlines with asinine comments almost weekly. Oil and oil money blights the landscape, both physical and psychological, our northern climes literally reduced to wasteland while our cities sprawl to accomodate the suburban mini-mansions and trucks paid for with rig money. We'd rather spend our public money on highways and world's largests to line them than health or education or art. To top it off, those of us that stick around get to watch the exodus of talented and intelligent people to pastures figuratively and literally greener.

So maybe, then, we should perk up our ears towards the Rural Alberta Advantage for no other reason than to remind ourselves of the good we do have. As the name of the band implies, it writes songs about the Albertan hinterland: specifically, punishingly raw, melodically intricate heartbreakers that wail about lost nights at the Leg, scream about leaving hearts in Lethbridge and get crushed under the emotional weight of the Frank slide.

The narrative setting is no act of cultural tourism (if Alberta is really a place for such things), either. Although drummer Paul Banwatt and multi-instrumentalist Amy Cole have always called the band's Ontario digs home, lyricist/singer/guitarist Nils Edenloff is of true Alberta stock: born and postsecondary educated in Edmonton, with a high school spent in Fort McMurray and summers in the Rockies and at lake cabins, he's singing of what he knows.

But while the nostalgic longing that fills Edenloff's voice and words throughout the band's stunning debut, appropriately titled Hometowns, is unmistakable, obviously it wasn't always this way: he is one of the ones who left, after all. Although he insists that, at the time, it was nothing personal: it wasn't so much about getting out of Alberta as it was getting out of the place where he had spent his entire life.

"At the time, I felt like I was in a rut: I was done school, things weren't really working out, and I basically figured I could stick around and keep doing the same old thing until I was 30, or maybe I could just pick up and go somewhere else," he explains over the phone from Toronto, prepping for the longest tour the band has embarked on to date, and the first one that will bring them back to the place that is their namesake.

"It was really more just that sort feeling of wanting to get out of your hometown. It wasn't really anything Edmonton-specific—I just needed a change."

Change came in the form of a move to Toronto—a city Edenloff admits with a laugh "kicked his ass" at first—but whatever feelings it were that drove him away quickly disappated. Though he now found body and mind in Hogtown, his heart, as he so simply puts it on Hometowns' plaintive-though-energetic opener "The Ballad of the RAA," never moved an inch.

"Once I moved out here, I really realized what kind of an impact that growing up in Alberta had on me," he explains in a manner that's both sincerely thoughtful and direct in the way of someone who's obviously had to think about just what kind of impact Alberta has had an awful lot over the past little while. "I don't think I would have realized that quite as readily if I hadn't moved out here. I think it's that you sort of have to leave your hometown before you really start to love it, or at least realize what you love about it."

And yet, as central as the Albertan landscape is to the band's ethos—and as provincially endearing as it can be to hear someone namecheck the spaces you inhabit—to limit the band's appeal to a geographical level would be myopically unjust. As its status as most-downloaded band on eMusic­—where a November feature catapulted the group beyond the Toronto scene—or the band's much-buzzed-about SXSW show opening up for indie darlings Grizzly Bear, or its recent signing to Saddle Creek would attest, you don't need to know where Garneau is to get floored by the RAA's melancholic folk-pop.

Certainly, at least part of the reason for the band's wide appeal is that ideas of leaving a place behind, of moving on to something greater, are applicable no matter where you're from.

"That is pretty universal," points out Edenloff. "I mean, playing for people in the States especially kind of drives that home: the reaction is usually, 'I don't know where Alberta is, but I can really relate to what the songs are about.'"

That's particularly true when you consider how closely the band weaves together the idea of leaving home with the idea of leaving a lover. Though it is the secondary theme of Hometowns, parallels between lost cities and lost lovers—the feelings of needing to escape, the necessity of distance to understanding them, the realization of what we've chosen to forget about them and how it's affected us moving forward—are rampant. (In that respect, actually, Hometowns seems like the flip side of our own Provincial Archives' similarly haunting Nameless Places, which covers the same ground from the perspective of someone who stuck close to their roots.) The appropriately ethereal first single, "Don't Haunt This Place," ties up the emotions of a lost lover with the presence of their keys in the apartment; "Frank AB," whose drums and wailing harmonies roll like an avalanche, compares the crushing weight of a break-up to the landmark rock slide; "Four Night Rider" is a dream of impossible mutual escape wrapped in rollicking, punk-tinged pop. If you've never left somewhere, you've at least lost a lover.

"That wasn't really something I thought about a lot at the time," says Edenloff of the connection, noting that, like both subjects, he's needed some distance from the song's initial writings to figure them out. "The band evolved right after my girlfriend and I broke up, and it was sort of an outlet to vent and, you know, deal with shit, and the Alberta thing kind of tied in because that's the situation I was finding myself in. But as it's gone on, I've definitely started to get that sense of how closely tied-up they were."

All that said, even focusing only on lyrical themes would be to sell the band short. Though Edenloff definitely has a touch for piercingly direct lyrics—"I was holding on to you / But you were holding less / It's not the words it's the ones you stress" he sings on "In the Summertime," which captures its vibe of slolwly disappointed love rather succinctly—it's how the band holds together that really pushes it over the top, and has made it stick out thus far. Edenloff's simple melodies and flat vocals—he sounds a bit like someone who can't sing breaking his heart while trying to do so, which has earned him a pickup truckload of not-entirely-accurate comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Magnum—play perfectly off Cole's whispery harmonies and keyboard plunks, while Banwatt (also of TO dance-rockers Woodhands) pushes the drums to the outer limits of pop, finding some otherwordly balance of his dancier, hip-hoppier roots and just the right amount of sparse accompaniment.
This comfort with each other, a kind of intuitive sense of what each needs to be doing on the song, expending minimal effort for maximum effect, was honed at a Toronto open mic night Edenloff and Banwatt hosted. Sparsely attended, it gave the band plenty of time to get comfortable with each other.

"It was really depressing: no one would come out, and it was sort of a soul-sucking experience. At the time, though, neither of us had a girlfriend or anything, and basically no reason to say no to a bar tab and some beer on a Tuesday night," he explains. "But we ended up having the fortunate experience of going through those growing pains and figuring out what works for us in front of the bar staff. I think it really helped us find a voice, find a way of saying things and playing things that's comfortable and sort of believable."

As much as it helped the band, though, for Edenloff it also represents another step in coming to understand the place he left: distance is one thing, but finding a group of like-minded collaborators has, as the band's burgeoning success would indicate, given him even further reason and opportunity to explore his roots. It's a curious thing, the fact that the more enmeshed he becomes in his new home, the more he's able to talk about what his old one meant. Not that he ever expects to really leave behind the place where he grew up.

"I've been here for ... I think it's seven-and-a-half years now, but I still see myself as an Albertan," he says, laughing a bit at the fact. "When I tell people how long it's been since I moved, though, it's like, 'Dude, you've been here for a while now, hey?'

"And truthfully, I'm really accustomed to living here—I mean, after seven-and-a-half years, God, I'd hope so—but no matter what I do, there's some sort of impact that Alberta had on me and the person I'm going to become. I don't think that's ever going to change, no matter how I evolve."
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