By Gabriel Mathews
There are two types of Canadian bands. The first and more prevalent is incredibly, ceaselessly earnest. See: Arcade Fire, The New Pornographers, Tegan And Sara, Constantines.
The second is much less frequently spotted: the band or artist that rejects the Canada-earnest mode in favor of jacked-up sleaze which is often so over the top that it comes back around to just feeling straight up sincere in it’s sleaziness. See: Death From Above 1979, Peaches, and, apparently, July Talk.
Twenty seconds into July Talk’s first song, I learned what I was getting myself into at the Crocodile. Peter Dreimanis had just sung the first verse, and it was time for co-leader Leah Fay to take the mic. As she began to sing, Dreimanis put one hand over her eyes and the knuckles of the other in his teeth, looking knowingly into the eyes of the crowd. This hyped-up sexuality was characteristic of the band’s entire set, as Dreimanis and Fay fondled each other pretty much ceaselessly. Fay poured water on Dreimanis’ head, Dreimanis ruffled Fay’s hair, they kissed each other’s necks, they fed each other booze, going all night for some sort of heated Doe/Cervenka, or Mosshart/Hince, or Boeckner/Perry (to use a Canadian example) chemistry. It’s hard to deny the magnetism of this performance— I’ve never seen such over-the-top sexualization out of a rock band. They were expert showmen, and any concern I’d initially had about the sort of disgusting objectification of Fay during the first song dissipated as I saw what a mutually objectifying stage relationship they seemed to have. Their showmanship was overall quite good, lot’s of “How’re you doing Seattle?!” “We’re so excited to be in the States!” “It’s Friday night, are you guys ready to have some fucking fun?!” Dreimanis likes to slap himself and bark, Fay likes to pour Jameson into the mouths of the front row.
It’s too bad the music didn’t really hold up. Dreimanis does an unforgivably Waitsian growl over the top of some weirdly modern rock-ized country/Americana. Guitarist Ian Docherty is good, and Fay is a decent enough singer, but nothing about these songs really stood out, which maybe explains the emphasis on performed sexuality. The only thing I could really think about the entire time was how intensely said sexuality was coming across and how this band made no sense at all opening for the Rural Alberta Advantage.
The Rural Alberta Advantage are so decidedly planted in that first group of Canadian bands that it actually might pose a threat to their continued relevance. They’ve just released their third album, Mended With Gold, which, while quite good, doesn’t deviate at all from the formula they laid out back in 2008 on the excellent Hometowns, and codified further on 2011’s lukewarm Departing. Said formula consists of Nils Edenloff playing basic, hooky folk-pop songs on an acoustic guitar while singing nasally about love, death, fear, veins, and Alberta, Amy Cole playing minimal keyboards and harmonizing occasionally, and Paul Banwatt absolutely kicking the shit out of a tiny drum kit. The band and anyone who’s ever heard them is fully aware that Banwatt is the primary reason to stick around: without his surgically batshit pummeling, these songs would get pretty tired pretty fast.
Which is not to say they’re not very, very good. In fact, I was impressed that the RAA were able to fill a rather long set with pretty much all great songs. Opening salvo “Stamp,” “Muscle Relaxants,” and “Don’t Haunt This Place” set the bar very high, but the band managed to maintain a level of enthusiasm and professionalism for the entirety of their set that kept even the lesser Departing material pretty exciting. The songs from the new album sounded great, particularly “The Build,” “Terrified,” “On The Rocks,” and “45/33.” Watching Banwatt’s face contort as he stormed through these songs was a perpetual thrill, which made me sad they didn’t hit his Mended showcase “All We’ve Ever Known.” But it was okay because they played nearly all of Hometowns, which has become one of my favorite standby records of the past decade. “Rush Apart,” “The Dethbridge in Lethbridge,” “Luciana,” “Frank, AB,” “Four Night Rider,” “Edmonton”— these songs are all fucking excellent and it was great to see the band hit them all with such enthusiasm.
After a tiny break, the RAA came back on after main-set closer “Dethbridge” for a three song-encore, finishing with “Drain The Blood.” Walking away from the mic, Edenloff led the audience in singing the song’s “ooh-ooh” refrain and clapping to the beat, as Banwatt grabbed a floor tom and Cole grabbed a tambourine. The band then walked out into the audience, climbing eventually up onto a bench in the side of the room to close out the evening with a beautifully un-amplified rendition of “Good Night.” This was a clearly calculated move that I’m sure they’ve done a hundred times, but it worked really well, and the song, which I’ve always found pretty silly, came across as meaningful in this setting. The audience shut up completely for the first time, and I realized that it wasn’t such a marvel that The Rural Alberta Advantage had sold out the Crocodile that night.