When a Canadian indie outfit is touring the U.S. to promote a record called Hometowns, the temptation to turn to matters geographical is almost overwhelming. But The Rural Alberta Advantage's folk-tinged debut can also be viewed from a more scientific perspective. As the plural in the title implies, this record is concerned with both place and time, and the two don't always interact in a straightforward fashion. Like Einstein said, time can stretch or contract depending on where you are and what you're doing, and all distance is relative. Of course, he was interested only in the laws of the physical universe, whereas these songs aim to examine how movement interacts with our inner, emotional lives.
The one constant according to The Rural Alberta Advantage is that hometowns are places to leave rather than return to. Some of their songs are written from the point of view of the person who has escaped but can't shake off the past; in others, the perspective shifts to the one left behind in abandoned stasis after events have overtaken them.
The first departure arrives at the start of the album's opening track, "The Ballad of RAA": "We invariably left the prairies, in my heart." They continue throughout. "Don't Haunt This Place" is about an ex-lover who is trying to move on but finds himself anchored by daily reminders of the recent past: "I see your keys hanging in the same place, they haven't moved for a month or even a day." Sadness turns to anger on "The Dethbridge in Lethbridge" with a snarl of, "I left your heartbeat in this town, I left your heartbeat in the ground." Happy homecomings don't seem to be an option.
Frontman Nils Edenloff's voice is responsible for a great deal of the album's emotional weight: keening in the upper registers, punky and biting when angry, and wearily melancholic when softened and low. His nasal twang may not suit all tastes and it does occasionally threaten to wear out its welcome, despite the album's brevity (its 13 tracks flit past in less than 38 minutes). But there are also no shortage of highlights to recommend, with many of the album's best tracks, such as "Don't Haunt This Place" and "Frank, AB," featuring the balancing influence of keyboard player Amy Cole's backing vocals, her higher voice encouraging Edenloff's toward the mellower lower registers. The drumming switches gears from metronomic to restless from track to track, but all the while it maintains a sense of movement, of driving forward. Meanwhile, melodies sketched out in minor keys and sung in mostly plaintive tones suggest an inescapable longing for other places or times.
The album's dominant theme -- of homes being left behind -- is one that will be familiar to many in the Bay Area. This is a place filled, after all, with more uprooted incomers than most, which makes this week's show in San Francisco a perfect opportunity to give the curious science of the Rural Alberta Advantage further study.
The Rural Alberta Advantage play Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco TONIGHT, Wednesday, December 16, 2009. For tickets and information, visit bottomofthehill.com. Hometowns is out now on Saddle Creek.