CD Review – Fort Frances “Harbour”
Chicago trio Fort Frances have released one of the most enriching collections of tunes I’ve heard so far this year with their brand-new five-song EP, Harbour. Following their impressive 2011 debut The Atlas, an album that won the trio an abundance of critical praise and led to an adoring fanbase born out of nonstop touring, Harbour capitalizes on everything that has brought Fort Frances to this point and delivers on every level.
A band of three immediately likeable guys playing heartfelt songs that balance folk and rock and roll tendencies (without ever stepping foot anywhere near what could ineptly be considered a gimmick) goes a long way in explaining why Fort Frances are so endearing to their fans. The group, which initially stemmed from the solo work of David McMillin (guitar, vocals, keys), found a rich, collaborative resonance as a trio once Jeff Piper (bass, vocals, keys) and Aaron Kiser (drums, vocals) entered the picture. Besides turning McMillin’s songs into even more incandescent gems on the shoulders of powerful three-part harmonies that can bring to your knees, Fort Frances is a tight-knit trio with an enviable ability to deliver pressure-cooking rock and roll or drop their instruments and raise their voices in unison for the benefit of the song. Not only are McMillin, Piper and Kiser on the same page of every moment of Harbour and their live shows, they are always reading the same perfect word of the same sentence on each dog-eared page.
Fort Frances were never a tough sell for my personal tastes. Beyond uniting melodic folk and outright rock and roll as seamlessly as favorites Josh Ritter and his Royal City Band and Langhorne Slim (Sam Kassirer, Ritter’s longtime producer and touring member of The Royal City Band – not to mention a Langhorne Slim producer – oversaw the production of Fort Frances’ The Atlas), McMillin’s voice instantly struck me as a kindred spirit of Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem. While it seems my enjoyment of Fort Frances was pretty much predestined by comparison, McMillin, Piper and Kiser deserve huge credit for crafting songs that allow me to hear nothing besides the excellence of Fort Frances whenever I listen to their music.
Another note that mustn’t be overlooked, even with my love for pretty much every record Kassirer has had a hand in (The Atlas definitely included), is how much a personal labor of love Harbour is for the guys of Fort Frances. The five songs are all McMillin originals, Kiser designed the artwork for the album, Piper engineered and mixed the record (which sounds downright incredible), and the band is wholly responsible for each arrangement you hear. The intimacy and the personal investment rings true in every respect, and the genuine pleasure that results from every listen is directly influenced by the band’s earnest vision.
Aiming to capture the spectrum of emotions that rise to the surface of a Midwestern winter in the band’s home of Chicago, McMillin’s open-hearted songwriting, enriched by the adding of and stripping of layers without ever feeling forcibly polished, cuts to the bone and consistently lifts spirits up to break through the grey skies. “City by the Sea” depicts life while settling down into The Windy City during the bleakest months while searching for a saving grace. McMillin sings, “I felt the roof cave in / I moved to the city by the sea,” before the chorus sweeps the listener away, replenishing the soul: “I’ll put your record on / Let’s turn love into something we can sing.” A chorus with such hope can have uncommon power – power that consistently graces Fort Frances songs – and it wouldn’t be inaccurate to call it an anthem.
The guys never allow that power to clang falsely or sound heavy-handed though. This restraint is perhaps best exemplified in McMillin’s opening lines to “City by the Sea” follow-up “Truths I Used to Know.” McMillin sings, “I used to spend my days writing anthems for the everyday man / but I burned all my posts, covered all my answers in camouflage clothes. I compromised my heart and the truths I used to know.” Right on the heels of the previous galvanizing refrain of “Let’s turn love into something we can sing,” he confesses, “We were just situational lovers, the kind that help the day move along.”
The change in outlook pays off tenfold, especially when the band brandishes their instruments as weapons and explode into a tightly wound frenzy of pure catharsis in the final minute. If you want a glimpse of the full, thrilling spectrum of a Fort Frances live set, put on “Truths I Used to Know” and turn up the volume.
The mesmerizing groove carved out by Kiser’s drums and Piper’s bass work wonders on “How to Turn Back Again,” opening up an airy canvas for McMillin’s lyrics to strike deepest. The groove builds and then slips away, the balancing act knowingly building tension until their glorious three-part harmony pleads, “Show me how to turn back, how to turn back again.” The harmony rushes in and swallows you up like an out-of-season gale on the pier, and then slides you back into placid waters while McMillin intones over Piper’s bass line, “Did you already give up, all the money I watched you throw away for nothing?”
The true measure of the riches the guys bring to Harbour is perhaps best depicted by saying they rise out of the gate with three songs that wouldn’t be far-fetched to consider nearly perfect, while they have yet to unleash arguably the collection’s two most outstanding songs – two songs that reside on opposite poles of the Fort Frances spectrum. “Please Don’t Wait Up” is an achingly somber beauty built around McMillin, sounding gutted and weathered, steadily strumming out an acoustic death march through what’s not hard to imagine being empty, snow-covered streets in the shade of looming skyscrapers as he sings, “I’m making big, big plans / this is love I don’t understand / anything / at all.” The trio’s voices unite as one for the pleading chorus “Please don’t give up on me,” while the tune’s haunting, evocative atmosphere gives way to a funereal horn. Down and vulnerable, McMillin searches for a silver lining, singing “Let’s make our way to the edge of the world / Let’s tie our hearts in double-knots. Let’s paint our memories green / I’ve got nowhere I need to be.”
Collection closer and lead single “I Had Love” is a jubilant slice of mirth that thrills the ears and sends the soul soaring. With the bouncy chorus shouting to the heavens, “I got up, I got down, I had love on the back of my mind!,” it’s a celebratory anthem primed for closing out Fort Frances live sets in rousing, communal fashion. Should “I Had Love” find the right ears to become a bona fide radio hit, it’s not far-fetched to foresee a moment in the very near future where cynics and critics absentmindedly write off Fort Frances for cashing in on a pop-Americana wave highlighted by the smashing success of The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” for much of the past year. Should that happen, it will be a gross, kneejerk criticism, primarily because “I Had Love” is one hell of a song (as is “Ho Hey” – although those who haven’t embraced the rest of The Lumineers album are missing out on even better songs), and it packs a triumphant wallop with that aforementioned uncommon power with which Fort Frances bless their songs.
If you’re in search of a new collection of songs to fall in love with for far longer than the next week or month, or if you’re longing to support a band of talented musicians crafting genuine and deeply human, harmony-driven rock at its finest, you certainly won’t regret putting your money and energy into Fort Frances.
Fort Frances’ Harbour is out now (released April 23) courtesy of Roadblock Records. Stream Harbour in its entirety below.
*This post first appeared on Division St. Harmony on April 28, 2013.
Fort Frances – “City by the Sea”
Fort Frances – “Truths I Used to Know”
Fort Frances – “How to Turn Back Again”
Fort Frances – “Please Don’t Wait Up”
Fort Frances – “I Had Love” (*Download)
Justin is a featured contributor to No Depression, and he resides on the outskirts of Indianapolis in Noblesville, Indiana. He writes his own music blog Division St. Harmony (@DivisnStHarmony), and he has been a senior contributor to The Silver Tongue and Laundromatinee. .
Justin has an affinity for writing and music that is both rich in head and heart. Feel free to follow him on Twitter at @clashrebel and on Facebook.
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