Very rarely do drummers stand out on a record. High-level production usually places the drums in the background, subduing even the most captivating of percussionists. Either that, or the band simply has such grandiosity that even extraordinary stickwork simply meshes in with all else (see Radiohead). It’s often difficult to differentiate oneself as a drummer, given the restrictive characteristics of the instrument. Though it may seem like the instrument with the most freedom, sadly most of the time there’s only so much that one can do with a drum set. This is not saying that it isn’t at all possible to captivate listeners with percussion, because as many drummers have proven, it certainly is. Every so often there’s a record that makes the bold move of bringing its rhythm section up front. In these rare occurrences, it’s because the drums are worth that much — because the guy on the set truly has something special going on. In recent memory, it happened with The National’s The Boxer. Well, add another record to the list. Recent Saddle Creek recruits, The Rural Alberta Advantage’s compelling sound on Hometowns, their re-released 2008 debut LP, is majorly indebted to the astounding skill of drummer Paul Banwatt.
The guy is simply a monster of outside-the-box rhythms. It’s hard to say just what his style is akin to. It’s got a whole mess of influences. There are some hints of punk in his hammering, but what’s really so captivating about his style is that it is so unlike anything else. As aforementioned above, the most notable comparison would be to The National’s Bryan Devendorf, only because both share the same tendency to alternate between heads and cymbals feverishly, to use high-hats almost as if they were snare drums, and to make sure each one of the set’s drum heads gets equal recognition. It’s a style equal parts harsh and delicate, juxtaposed with pretty, mellow instrumentation, another reason why it recalls Devendorf’s work with the National. The choppiness and abruptness of his alternating is also slightly reminiscent of Radiohead’s Phil Selway’s work, particularly in the spacious percussion of “Airbag” or “Morning Bell”. Undeniably, Banwatt is in good company.
But, of course, there would be no room for Banwatt’s incredible work behind the set without Nils Edenloff’s impeccable songwriting and the emotive snarl that gives it life. Yes, he sounds a bit like Jeff Mangum, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is some sort of Neutral Milk Hotel knock-off. It is nothing of the sort. Edenloff definitely has some Mangum-isms, but seeing as the Neutral Milk Hotel frontman is one of the kings of indie folk, his wide influence on the genre’s newcomers is inevitable. Nothing wrong with that. His guitar work and vocal stylings recall many Neutral Milk Hotel moments, and the oft hard-hitting drums also hearken back to In the Aeroplane over the Sea, most notably seen on “Rush Apart”, the album’s second track. Nevertheless, there’s something novel here. Little tweaks such as the warm strings and bright xylophone that carry “The Ballad of the RAA”, the Yo La Tengo-esque synth-organ that recalls “Autumn Sweater” on “Sleep All Day”, and of course, Amy Cole’s bright backing vocals. There’s an impeccable balance here, and it’s rather amazing.
Juxtaposition is key to the record’s success: the soft and the hard, the sweet and the harsh. Contrast is present in everything that the trio does. The roughness of Edenloff’s vocals is paired up with the warm, smoothness of Cole’s. He can sound like he’s calming a baby to sleep right before he yells into your ear, only to have Cole come to a motherly rescue. His guitar work is the same way. Fingerpicked slow tunes are in balance with hard-hitting electricity. And I’ve already touched on how the drumming backs it all up in a similar way. Whenever things get too mellow, there’s Banwatt to make sure the energy stays high enough.
Edenloff sings of Canadian geography, mountainous landscapes, his relationship with them, and the relationships that grow and fall apart amongst it all. He is backed by a band that perfectly soundtracks his passionate, troubled words. The band name and album title say it all. This band is from Canada, and they’re going to tell you about it. And so they do, but in a way that doesn’t sound all that patriotic and never seems cheesy. Canada is simply a starting point for the complex themes that the album covers. As each song concludes, the effort’s love/hate motif becomes clearer and clearer.
The album’s first line perfectly sets the scene for the rest of Hometowns: “We invariably/left the prairies/in our heart/since/we never moved an inch.” It is clear that Edenloff loves his country, but can’t help feeling caged by its rural characteristics. There’s hints of this all over the record. A part of him wants to get away from it all, yet as the record’s tracklisting and lyrics reveal, he knows he loves his roots. There were downsides to growing up in the harsh cold of rural Alberta, but in the end, the trio is stronger for them. “Going away again/from this Alberta pen/but I will never/try to forget your Northern eyes,” he sings on “Edmonton”. The record’s first track ends with bittersweet optimism regarding this front: “And all these things will pass/It’s the good ones that will last/And right here what we’ve had/Is a good thing, it will last.” Hometowns is one of the good things. And yes, it will last.
(also available at Consequence of Sound)