Drums steal the show on The Rural Alberta Advantage’s bittersweet The Wild

The Toronto trio's fourth full-length elevates its nostalgic, longing songs with outstanding musicianship

If it weren’t for drummer Paul Banwatt, the Rural Alberta Advantage might be just another heart-on-sleeve singer/songwriter project. Many folk rock bands tend to place guitar and vocals at the forefront, but here, rhythm acts as the guiding force. In the RAA’s early days, Banwatt’s urgent beats helped forge an improbable bridge between Neutral Milk Hotel and dance music influences, and on the Toronto trio’s fourth full-length, his angular rhythms and thundering fills once again steal the show.

This isn’t to downplay the importance of singer/guitarist Nils Edenloff, whose bittersweet melodies and strained, howling vocals give the music its heart-tugging pathos. Nostalgia for his Alberta upbringing has long served as a muse, and a press release notes last summer’s Fort McMurray fires informed the darkness that permeates The Wild.

That said, the record avoids the specific geographic references that used to be the RAA’s calling card in favour of more abstract, generalized longing. Edenloff is wise to avoid rehashing old tricks, but these lyrics are less distinctive.

Bad Luck Again is a wistful standout, with recent addition Robin Hatch’s reverb-drenched backing vocals acting as the haunting counterpoint to the climactic drum crescendos. The mood turns angry on Dead Alive, which features a distorted cow-punk surging guitar and some surprisingly ragged snarls from Edenloff. (He could be an excellent hardcore screamer.)

The instrumentation is minimal, but the guitars and drums are turned up loud enough that the arrangements never sound empty. The only misfires include Brother, an old-tyme shanty à la the Decemberists whose Back On The Chain Gang-style background chants are an uncharacteristically tacky production choice.

Still, The Wild is full of serviceable songs and outstanding playing, with Banwatt once again proving he’s one of the best drummers in the biz. 

Top track: Bad Luck Again

The Rural Alberta Advantage play the Danforth Music Hall on December 6 and 7. See listing.

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