Nebraska's Saddle Creek Records has championed some of the prettiest, evocative, rustic-tinged pop in the indie community, reaching far and wide for unexpected signings. One of the outfit's latest discoveries is Toronto's The Rural Alberta Advantage, a trio whose self-released, full-length debut, "Hometowns," was re-released by Saddle Creek this summer.
"Hometowns" is a remarkably assured album, led by front man Nils Edenloff's reedy tenor over a jangly acoustic guitar; Amy Cole's lilting, watercolor keyboards; and the busy drum work of Paul Banwatt. Indeed, Banwatt's propulsive beat is immediately arresting, marking time like a drill sergeant with the omnipresent pulse rising in waves that nearly overshadow the percolating melodies. It's rare to hear a drummer that's so demonstrative within such pretty, supple music, giving Rural Alberta a distinctive air that's simultaneously taut and gentle.
The disc's dreamy tone and boy/girl harmonies reflect a bittersweet sentiment that resides deep in the bones of the songs. Edenloff's lyrics conflate a homesickness for his old Alberta home with a love affair gone to pieces, as he asks, "What'll I do if you never want me back?" He confirms, "I know we're taking a break and I know we both need room," on tracks "Edmonton" and "Sleep All Day," respectively.
"At the time that we were writing these songs and starting out, I was going through a breakup with a girl," Edenloff said. "The two things " a breakup with a loved one and leaving the home that you've always known " are similar in a way. It's like you're breaking up with your hometown, packing up and moving on, and in some sense, you can say that with a loved one. It feels like a terrible thing, but there's a sort of optimistic future in the long run, sort of looking forward to the future."
Although Rural Alberta's songs evoke similar emotions and employ a consistent palette, the tracks manage to cover a lot of territory, from the charging, plucky rush of "The Dethbridge in Lethbridge," which suggests British indie rockers The Wedding Present, to the ragged shimmering drift of "Don't Haunt This Place," with its cello and psych-folk echoes of Grizzly Bear. Yet at the core, Edenloff said the songs are simply strummy folk-pop.
"I've always been a fan of solo singer/songwriter stuff where you can take a song and strip it down to its element, and it's still a beautiful song, even if you amp up the sound and add all the interesting effects to it," he said. "I'm really more interested in well-written songs which have a strong melody associated with it. That's what we're trying to do. Whether or not we will stray away from the acoustic guitar for something louder and bigger, that's always the focus."
The band began four years ago with an open-mic night hosted by Edenloff and Banwatt. It wasn't that popular ("We were basically playing for the bar staff," Edenloff said), but that gave them a chance to try out new songs, explore oddball covers (including "Eye of the Tiger" and "S.O.S.") and hone their chops. After releasing a self-titled EP in 2006, the two recycled and sharpened several of those songs for the full-length, which received a big boost last November when eMusic.com highlighed it as among the year's finest unsigned music.
A popular Toronto-area blogger also sang Rural Alberta's praises, which helped the group land a booking agent, who got the musicians into Austin, Texas' South by Southwest Music Festival, where the act met and were eventually signed by representatives of Saddle Creek. More touring followed, and the response just grew and grew.
"It's been this constant build. It's been a pretty wonderful year," Edenloff said. "It's shattered any expectations that we could've had 52 weeks ago."
RAISING THE STAKES
All the attention has raised the stakes for the young trio, posing the threat of the sophomore slump, since the musicians have been playing and honing much of their current roster for several years " a luxury they won't have next time around.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say I was a little more nervous," Edenloff said. "There's a lot more ears expecting the next record. We'll see how it goes."
The Rural Alberta Advantage with The Shaky Hands perform at 9 p.m. Thursday at The Conservatory, 8911 N. Western. "Chris Parker