The Rural Alberta Advantage (RAA) returns with the third and strongest addition to their impressive catalogue, Mended with Gold. Originally hailed as “Canada’s best unsigned band” on the now defunct music blog herohill.com (http://exclaim.ca/music/article/rip_herohill) after self-releasing their debut album Hometowns to great acclaim, they signed onto Saddle Creek Records (https://saddle-creek.com/). The band immediately fit right into the label’s ‘indie-with-a-country-twang’ motif (I’ve even heard them described as “cow punk”, which is not a genre I’d previously heard of).
The first feature to strike any new listener of The RAA will be lead singer and guitarist Nils Edenloff’s emphatic and nasal vocals, often compared to those of Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel. Mended with Gold is no different, as the opener Our Love… begins with nothing but those vocals laid overtop a muted, driving guitar riff. Though the chords themselves are straight forward, characteristic of The RAA’s general bent, it nonetheless burrows right into your subconscious. The catchy progression soon explodes with what, more often than not, is the highlight of The RAA: Paul Banwatt’s wild drum-work. His frenetic style sounds just as comfortable in 3/4 as 4/4 and, in the words of Kurt Cobain (speaking of Nirvana’s confirmation of Dave Grohl’s inclusion in the band), he “hits the drums really hard”. For most of this band’s discography, this is an indispensable facet. None of this, however, should be construed to discount Amy Cole’s contributions to their sound. Adding angelic backing vocals and expansive keyboard tracks, she allows the three-piece to function without a bass player while still providing a dynamic range. I doubt many would even realize there isn’t a bass player without witnessing it first-hand.
Evolving naturally from the intro, Mended with Gold continues to explore themes which are endemic to the band’s name and history. The overwhelming message conveyed throughout the album is one of loss; pertaining not only to the outcomes of failed romance but also harkening to Edenloff’s origins in rural Alberta. Though the trio formed in Toronto, it is clear that the lyricist is still very much consumed by his memories of childhood and adolescence there. It is not always clear whether or not he regrets the move; the tone embodies a certain wistfulness and longing, yet primarily recalls tragedy. At any rate, the content evokes ideas that one might expect from such a transition. On the Rocks’ refrain, for example, “nothing going wrong, nothing going down” promotes the stereotypical concept that a rural upbringing may be simple and uncomplicated, though perhaps a tad boring and can also be applied to a relationship gone stale. While these are not always the most unique or original insights, they are instantly relatable to anyone who’s ever experienced loss (read: everyone). At the end of day, however, Edenloff appears to have found musical success and made Toronto his home for over a decade.
Most importantly, Mended with Gold boasts a captivating end to the album, which I personally consider to be the most appealing aspect to any release. Though touted by many as the focal point of the album (and its lead single), I find Vulcan, AB to be the least gripping song on the final third of the album, though still an enjoyable track overall and a middling ballad compared to the entire offering. Mended with Gold culminates in …On the Run, my favourite track here (and also completing the ellipse initiated with the opener). In particular, the song does not follow a standard structure, and, about a minute and half in, breaks out into the absolute climax of the album with what feels like a chorus, but ends up not being repeated, leaving one wanting more.
What really makes this record stand out compared to The RAA’s previous works is that it’s their first effort which actually feels like a proper album, as opposed to a collection of songs. The title is a reference to the Japanese concept of kintsugi, which means to repair a damaged item with gold. This term encapsulates the entire subject matter, as Edenloff continues to contemplate and reflect upon various trials and misfortunes from his life, attempting to get the most out of them through songwriting. It may not contain their highest highs (I enjoy the one-two punch of Stamp and Tornado ’87 on the prior Departing), but it doesn’t have any real clunkers either. The lowest point is The Build, but even that provides a nice counterpoint to the fast-paced feel of the overall approach. In general, if you’re going to appreciate a band like The RAA, you’re going to be drawn in by the punchy, upbeat nature of their attack. In some ways, their biggest drawback is the band name itself, which is a veritable tongue twister (and could rightfully be considered the rural Alberta disadvantage).