Expectations should be higher than average for Departing since the Rural Alberta Advantage’s debut Hometowns was such a revelation: unpretentious, compelling indie folk drawn through the emotional mesh of all that we must leave behind. Plus, it had some kickass drums. Hometowns was also Ca Va Cool’s runner-up for album of the year in 2009, which is a lot for anyone to deal with — we’re all worried about how Arcade Fire are going to handle it this year — but somehow the RAA have overcome the pressure, and barring a local music explosion of 2003ian proportions, Departing is on track to be one of the best Canadian releases of the year. The only way it fails to live up to Hometowns is by not arriving as a total surprise. It crackles with the same intelligence and intensity and good-natured melancholy that kept Hometowns on repeat for longer than I’d like to admit.
The title Departing is curious, either a wink or a bit of wishful thinking, since the band definitely hasn’t left the space occupied by their debut. Like Hometowns, Departing is about the cities we lead our lives in and the romantic partners we share our lives with, and what happens to them and to us when they move out of our lives and into our histories. Edmonton is treated like a girlfriend who has drifted away, complete with hard feelings and awkward reunions. Unnamed ex-lovers suggest streets and landmarks full of memory. In this context, love and loss manage to sound fresh and penetrating instead of fading into familiar singer-songwriter mush.
The strength of the RAA’s sound is still its simplicity. Paul Banwatt’s manic beats sit up front with reedy vocals by Nils Edenloff (and occasionally Amy Cole) and never have to fight for space. The new album shows the stretch marks of a bigger budget — tour receipts probably paid for some nicer microphones, which can be dangerous to a charming DIY sound, but Departing pulls through with plenty of raucousness when it’s needed. The best rock tracks here, ‘Stamp’ and ‘Barnes’ Yard’, make appropriate use of better production values, while more reflective tracks like ‘North Star’ enjoy the rawness that worked so well on Hometowns.
You do start to wonder if Edenloff will keep singing about Alberta forever, and he may be wondering that himself. “Good night to the Alberta Advantage,” he manages in the album’s closing track. Referencing the title of your band in lyrics is a card you really only get to play once at the most, so you get the impression that he might actually mean it. For the moment, now that the dreaded sophomore slump is out of the realm of possibility, we can comfortably bump the Rural Alberta Advantage up a couple of slots on our Canadian indie power rankings. I don’t know how it could possibly get the recognition it deserves, but Departing has my theoretical vote in nearly any category: for tactful and powerful songwriting, for making the most of a truly awkward band name, for sheer consistency, and for proving beyond a doubt that folk can rock.