Drinking on the patio of a Toronto bar, the Rural Alberta Advantage sit underneath a mural touting Big Rock Beer: "Alberta's Other Natural Resource." The irony of the ad is not lost on drummer Paul Banwatt, 28, multi-instrumentalist Amy Cole, 30, and singer-guitarist Nils Edenloff, 30.
"You can't escape your home," says the freckled Edenloff, who grew up in Edmonton. "Even though you want to leave, it's so much a part of you, whether you like it or not."
Leaving obscurity behind has been easier. After starting out playing weekly open-mic nights at a Toronto biker hangout, the band got a boost from eMusic late last year, when the online retailer featured them as a "Selects" artist. Hometowns, the trio's independently released debut, promptly became the best-selling album from a so designated act on the site to date. Conor Oberst's Saddle Creek label soon came calling from south of the border; the Nebraska indie reissued the album here this past July. But the Canadians have yet to meet their benefactor. "We read a magazine with him in it on tour," says Banwatt. "I think that's our closest connection."
Not quite. Hometowns is a sparkling exemplar of the Omaha sound, as Edenloff's lyrics, sung in a nasal yelp reminiscent of labelmate Tim Kasher of Cursive, take their inspiration from both the ghosts of his heart (as on the gently propulsive "Don't Haunt This Place") and those of his rough-hewn home province (the eerie "Dethbridge in Lethbridge"). The emotion-drenched songs are graced with sparse, percussive arrangements, full of lustrous boygirl harmonies and anthemic hooks.
Having worked through, and been rewarded for, their uneasy nostalgia -- the band members were told they would be "White Hatted" on their next visit to Calgary, where they will receive matching cowboy hats rather than keys to the city -- the RAA have begun mapping an ambitious followup, a Canadian counterpart to Sufjan Stevens' album-per-state project. "There's been such a great response to the Alberta songs," explains Edenloff. "But even if there are only ten provinces, it's a very lofty goal."
"Just think," encourages Banwatt. "We'll be done five times sooner!"
LISTEN: The Rural Alberta Advantage, "Don't Haunt This Place" (DOWNLOAD MP3)
WATCH: The Rural Alberta Advantage, "In the Summertime"