On third LP, Mended With Gold, the band pursues escape velocity with the most commitment yet, making the most bombastic and polished arrangements of their career.
The Rural Alberta Advantage have always concerned themselves with going away and coming back. Decided outsiders to the US market, they didn't emerge from the fertile indie rock auger of Montreal; they met at an open mic in Toronto. Even Toronto was a dislocation for singer Nils Edenloff, and he filled the band's first record with nostalgic heartbreak from the Western steppes of his childhood -- imagery from places like Lethbridge and Frank, Alberta. Perhaps the most telling line on either of the band's first two LPs, aptly titled Hometowns and Departing, was Edenloff's first line of their debut LP: "We invariably left the prairies." Life threw us forwards through a series of departures, they suggested, as we fought back towards an increasingly illusory point of beginning. Nostalgia made this process of leaving both better and worse. On third LP, Mended With Gold, the band pursues escape velocity with the most commitment yet, making the most bombastic and polished arrangements of their career, maybe an odd direction for the three members of the RAA who have by now all successfully left whatever it was they were leaving.
The litany of song titles on Mended With Gold hints at the attendant anxiety associated with the forever-departure model: "Terrified", "Runners in the Night", "To Be Scared", and "...On the Run" comprise more than a third of the album. Rural Alberta wouldn't be the first artist to make a career in the tension of leaving small towns, going to cities and feeling complicated about it -- Springsteen has been "on the run" from a fictitious Jungleland for almost four decades. The trope endures because it works. Geographic dissociation becomes coded language for other things: love and loss. Edenloff wails, "We're doing fine, we're doing alright" on the suitably urban "This City". The elision completes on subsequent track, one of their best, "On the Rocks", which opens with "let's rush to the city". Amy Cole, sadly marginalized a bit on Mended With Gold, appears in a brilliant duet to sing, "Our love was on the rocks the day we let it out," intimating that possession, stasis and departure might be well tied up in this discourse about coming and going. On "Runners in the Night", Edenloff muses, perhaps ironically, "If we can get home, we can get right." The return proves impossible, even on the album's best song and a geographic ode to the band's history, "Vulcan, AB", a town of just more than 1,800 people in Southern Alberta. Return to places like Vulcan happens in lyrics only. On "... On the Run", Edenloff countervails his wailing "My lord!" with a bridge where he promises, "But now we're going to grow up." It represents a sad promise.
Sonically, the band attempts to leave behind some of their bucolic qualities on Mended With Gold. Paul Banwatt, one of the best drummers in rock music, rages into his kit with lightning fills on "This City" and "All We've Ever Known". Sadly this effort occasionally goes to waste on song structures that lack the clarity and simplicity of the band's first two records. On "The Build", the Rural Alberta Advantage heads for the top of the room, without clarity of purpose. The record supposes itself bigger only for the sake of scale, a trade that emphasizes the brilliance of songs that don't follow this model of imperial arranging. "Vulcan, AB" holds its charm in its restraint, even as Edenloff unleashes his signature brand of unfolding visceral tragedy: "Going to break your heart, gonna grow up now, gonna try, gonna fight, gonna forget how." The bifurcation between the delicate and the brutal lays at the center of the Rural Alberta Advantage's best work. More than geography, plaintive tales of the pastoral or troubled ones about the cosmopolitan, it remains the quiet, slow descent of intimate relations that the band does best: Love forever on the rocks, foundering in the shoals.
Mended With Gold shines and wilts in equal measure. For each injection of bombast draws the band further and further from their essential qualities. And yet, this departure, too, was inevitable. Ever since the open mic in Toronto, the closing of the restaurant that forced them together as a band, the lyric dreams of the prairie, the Rural Alberta Advantage has been heading toward a moment like this. The RAA means to instruct us or, more generously, to simply meditate on the necessary perversions of growing up and getting away. The future always promised the building of a monument to our old selves. Application of shiny patches, the gold-lamé flecking the edges turns the project accidentally gaudy. Neither here nor there, past nor future, the band stands, instead, unsteady in the present.