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The Rural Alberta Advantage: Songs of Relocation

Mar. 16, 2011
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Give credit to Toronto's The Rural Alberta Advantage for its naming prowess: The group's songs are indeed about the advantages to living in rural Alberta. Neutral Milk Hotel, to whom the band often gets compared, never wrote songs about neutral milk or milk hotels, or any dairy products in general. But The Rural Alberta Advantage has an uncommon sense of place. That place, the city where singer and songwriter Nils Edenloff grew up, is Fort McMurray, Alberta, an oil town in the middle of nowhere.

It is not the most obvious place to become a rock star.

"The town had only two radio stations, one for country and one for classic rock. If you didn't like one of those, you were out of luck," Edenloff says.

"It was kind of that age before everyone was on the Internet," he continues, "and in order to find things, you had to do a lot more digging to find the types of bands I wanted to listen to. The closest city was Edmonton, and that was five hours away. I would take a trip to Edmonton over the weekend and stock up on albums."

Edenloff is the rare musician who will never play within a hundred miles of his hometown. Edmonton remains the closest real tour stop, and that five-hour drive is grueling on a tour bus. Even if an airplane made the trip manageable, Edenloff doesn't really play to the city's musical tastes ("I'm not sure how warmly I'd be greeted," he says). He may write lovingly about his childhood, but he is destined to write lovingly about his childhood for an audience that wasn't there for it.

And he knows it. The 2009 album Hometowns is not only about the city, but also about the nostalgia of moving away. Above the distorted folk-pop acoustic guitars and behind Edenloff's nasal voice there is the sense of loss from moving on. Fort McMurray might be a narrow focus for a song, but change is a universal theme. That's an important thing, not only for reasons of finding a fan base but also because neither bassist Amy Cole nor acrobatic drummer Paul Banwatt is from rural Alberta (Cole is from small-town Port Colborne, Ontario, and Banwatt is from Mississauga, Canada's sixth-largest city).

"I think a lot of people know where I was coming from. There was never any, 'We're not going to play these Alberta songs, we're not going to have it,' from the band," Edenloff says.

But their change-based music may be, well, changing soon. The band's first two albums were designed as bookends to the same emotional content. As their titles suggest, Hometowns brought Edenloff back to Fort McMurray and the new Departing let him leave.

"I always felt the two albums were more or less companion pieces to one another," Edenloff says. "We first wanted to make a series of EPs to create a body of work. But I always wanted to start with 'Ballad [of the RAA]' and end with 'Goodnight.'"

With a different theme, one that shifts away from rural Alberta, the Advantage may lose their title as most accurately named band touring today. They would have to be content with just being the current torchbearers of Jeff Mangum-style rock.

It's a change. Good thing they've recorded the two perfect albums to help them through it.

The Rural Alberta Advantage headlines an 8 p.m. show at Mad Planet on Wednesday, March 23, with James Vincent McMorrow and Dinosaur Feathers.


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