Author: Andy Downing
The Rural Alberta Advantage's sophomore album, "Departing" (Saddle Creek), appears to open on an optimistic note, with singer/guitarist Nils Edenloff crooning about two lovers "stuck in a sweet embrace."But as the acoustic ballad progresses, it becomes clear the narrator is merely holding tight out of a fear he'll lose everything if he lets go, with Edenloff singing, "I'll hold you tight enough to crush your veins.""It's definitely one of the themes of the record," drummer Paul Banwatt said in a recent phone interview. "Nils writes a lot more about heartbreak than happy love times. It's that whole idea of staying connected to something."So it goes on a bruised, battered album that plays like the sonic equivalent to the film "Blue Valentine," wavering between emotional outbursts ("Stamp") and heartbroken confessionals ("North Star"). As with many things in life, there are no tidy resolutions. Despite closing with "Good Night," a song whose title suggests a clean break, reality remains far murkier, Edenloff bidding his counterpart adieu even as he wonders aloud if perhaps they'll get back together someday.It's apt that the Toronto-based trio, which visits Madison's High Noon Saloon on Thursday, March 24, focuses so heavily on these personal moments. Unlike many of their Canadian brethren (Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, New Pornographers, etc.), Rural Alberta have resisted the urge to transform themselves into a sprawling, multiheaded collective."There were times (around the release of our debut) when we had five or six people in the band and it always felt like we were overreaching," said Banwatt. "It felt like taking a guy with an acoustic guitar and a drummer and then trying to turn that into Arcade Fire."So for "Departing," the trio stripped things back, completing their current lineup with the addition of keyboardist Amy Cole. In many ways, this was the band's attempt to recapture the intimate sound Banwatt and Edenloff developed when they first started playing together over five years ago at an open mic night at now-defunct Toronto bar The Winchester ? coincidentally the same name as the pub in Edgar Wright's zombie comedy "Shaun of the Dead.""I remember thinking about that when we watched that movie," said Banwatt, and laughed. "That was our life: every week going to The Winchester."And while the duo never had to fight off hordes of the undead, their final performance did end in an unlikely fashion, after some members of the motorcycle club Hell's Angels made their way into the bar and ignited a mini rumble. "That," said the drummer, "was bizarre."Banwatt, who describes his bandmates as if they were members of his family, said that while their latest album might explore personal tensions, relationships within the group have actually never been better. Indeed, the comfort level among the musicians allowed them to push their sonic experimentations a bit further, at times mutating Edenloff's simple folk songs into something grander than he might have originally envisioned. Witness "Tornado," which opens amid a sparse strum of acoustic guitar before the band blows through like the titular windstorm."That was a real literal attempt to create that feel of a tornado," said Banwatt. "Even in terms of the motions of the drums, it's actually a very swirling pattern that goes around and around the kit."Not that there's any real danger of Rural Alberta venturing too deep into art-rock."A lot of the softer songs come from a desire to really stick to our roots," said Banwatt. "We started at an open mic night with really simple instrumentation ? (and) we always want to be able to be that band in some way."