Illustration from Kaisenshu: One Thousand Shells in Life Color by Yoichiro Hirase, 1914
So I'm continuing to catch up on 2009 releases that I missed when they came out, and I'm counting Hometowns by the Rural Alberta Advantage as a 2009 release. I know it was originally self-released in 2008, but I think that it's official release date was when it was given a wide release by Saddle Creek in July of this year. I didn't get the record when it came out because of some of the lukewarm reviews I read - despite being a big Neutral Milk Hotel fan, I've learned to steer clear of bands compared to Neutral Milk Hotel.
As it turns out, though, that comparison is pretty misleading, as are the comparisons to Arcade Fire and Bright Eyes. There's about thirty seconds of Hometowns that sounds like Neutral Milk Hotel (the end of "Luciana"), and that's ultimately a good thing. It ought to take more than a rich acoustic guitar sound, pinched nasal vocals, and an occasional horn section to have people yelling about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. And the Rural Alberta Advantage deserve better.
The other side of the two-edged sword in reviews of Hometowns has been the "likable but unremarkable" judgment, which seems at odds with any NMH comparisons. And I take exception to this assessment as well - for me, at least, there's a combination of several factors at work in Hometowns that, in isolation, would not be remarkable, but they cumulatively add up to a great listening experience. Few new records I heard in 2009 had all the following things I look for in pop music:
1. A distinctive male lead vocalist and solid female vocalist that know how to use their voices to complement each other.
2. Simple but compelling drum parts that have a great sound and draw you into each song.
3. A penchant for REM-inspired melodies with some real nice, soaring hooks.
4. Memorable but not over-worked lyrics that draw from an emotional center (love and longing) while tying into an overarching theme (getting the hell out of Alberta).
5. A consistency of songwriting where each song has substantial merit and nothing feels like filler.
Having all these things makes Hometowns a remarkable album. I can see having a "meh" response to the album if those things aren't what you're looking for in pop music, but when all the elements come together, the Rural Alberta Advantage hits a sweet spot for me like few other new bands have this year.
"Edmonton" by the Rural Alberta Advantage