I had been recommended The Rural Alberta Advantage in the past, but it wasn’t until I gave ‘North Star’, off of their most recent album, Departing, a few listens that my interest was adequately piqued.

This album really caught me by surprise, mostly by how quickly I took to it, and how many times I’ve been able to listen to it without getting bored. We could start with the tiresome/requisite comparison of TRAA to the by-now-almost-legendary Neutral Milk Hotel project of Jeff Mangum, and while such an exercise is not without merit it was not my first association of the album.

What I was most reminded of was last year’s Sigh No More by Marcus Mumford and co. The two have a handful of stylistic elements in common, but more fundamental than that, Departing has a raw energy to it that I hadn’t heard since about this time last year. An example is in order:

      Tornado - The Rural Alberta Advantage

Tornado‘ starts off softly, with Nils Edenloff’s crooning vocals gently accompanying the timid guitar. Suddenly, however, a rumbling wall of percussion rolls in, and the pace picks up, Edenloff’s strengthen. By the time we get to the chorus, the song is barreling along with the momentum of a freight train, the lyrics suddenly soaring, the understated backing vocals providing the perfect counterpoint. At the start of the final section, we pause for another quiet section, before immediately being accelerated back into that chorus. It’s a rollercoaster of a song, and the fun scales with the volume.

So that’s one example, and one of my favorite songs which bolsters a really strong second half of the album. Departing actually starts with the slower ‘Two Loves’ and builds via ‘The Breakup’ to ‘Under the Knife’. The lattermost of these is another of my favorites for the bouncing rhythm and well-placed bell sounds halfway in that give it a neat texture.

The aforementioned ‘North Star’ is actually a bit of a black sheep in that it is low key and subdued, opting to wait to show it’s full hand until the last minute of the song, but even then it never really cuts loose like so much of the other material on this record. That said, it strikes a really sentimental tone, and serves the album well by providing a break from the action while still being interesting.

‘Stamp’ is basic love-lost track, but again the energy and drive, along with clever application of a limited number of musical ideas, take something that could be forgettable and make it impossible to ignore.

The other song I want to share is ‘Barnes’ Yard‘, a song whose lyrics are wholly incomprehensible to me for the most part, but is a terrific piece of music.

      Barnes' Yard - The Rural Alberta Advantage

The wordplay here is elementary, but really fun in a less-is-more kinda way, and

We’re broken down lovers at the side of the road
We’re broken down lovers in the city of oil
There’s nothing going wrong in your empty home
There’s nothing going wrong and we’ll leave it alone

along with

Your brother’s in the basement doing ‘hot knives’

are a weird mixture of fun and poignant that I really enjoyed. To round out the entire thing, ‘Coldest Days’ and ‘Good Night’ are more subdued tracks that wind down the energy while still having some power of their own, especially the refrain on ‘Good Night’, which has an almost tormented element of sadness in the way the lyrics are barked out.

Though I wasn’t expecting to feel so strongly about Departing, it ended up being a sleeper hit that I haven’t been able to put down for the last two weeks.

The Rural Alberta Advantage – Departing

Author’s Note: I try not to let other reviews color my own, but CoS’s take on Departing was so off-base that I had to give my short rebuttal. They basically spend their entire writeup whining about how the record harps on the same handful of themes, and that now that Jeff Mangum is back, we should be far more critical of NMH-derivative work; they essentially postulate that this group just doesn’t cut it any more when the ‘real thing’ is out there.

These are two terrible reasons to discount the album. They completely ignore the passion and nuance of the work, and give far too little credit to the fact that, by their own admission, “it’s got the music down pat…” If you want fancy lyrics, buy a Modest Mouse record. If you want to listen to NMH, go for it. Live and let live; Departing is a great effort, and stands among my favorite music of 2011 so far.