Michigan’s Frontier Ruckus release new full-length “Deadmalls & Nightfalls”
Having recently gotten my hands on the latest album by Michigan’s Frontier Ruckus, Deadmalls & Nightfalls, and having listened to it a number of times in its entirety, I now find myself compelled to offer up some words on it. First, I suppose I should begin by stating that Deadmalls & Nightfalls is undoubtedly one of the most gorgeous albums I have heard in some time, both aesthetically solid and altogether indelible, with its quaint neighborhood of well-composed song structures, which are more like empty tree forts in the fading warmth of late autumn than cookie-cutter suburban homes in the soft glow of mid-summer dawns…or rather, more like a shoebox filled old sentimental photographs and a stack of personal journals than immediate observations and experiences.
Deadmalls & Nightfalls echoes with an abundance of nostalgia, centering on childhood landmarks as points of significant remembrance. It’s an exercise in coming to terms with all the years and miles between then and now. It’s a diary of sorts, complete with a battered cover, blue-lined sheets of white notebook paper, one’s own discernable scrawl in so much handwritten ink, occasional pencil scratches, each line, each paragraph, each page covering one’s intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and psychological compass points.
Frontier Ruckus’s sound is essentially folk-based, though at times ventures off into gothic Americana, alt-country, indie bluegrass, and a bit of fertile experimentation. Without question, their sound is one that is labored over extensively, both earnest and precise in composition and execution, organic through and through, musically rich and lyrically poetic…bringing to mind other artists such as Sufjan Stevens’ more folky and stripped-down pieces, as well as the Great Lake Swimmers and Iron & Wine, among others. But there is also something remarkably original about Frontier Ruckus’s sound, something that exists largely outside the world of compare and contrast, making the abovementioned bands not so much artists to which Frontier Ruckus can be likened but artists that similarly explore the same vast musical wilderness, the same stretches of disconsolate highway, and the same small towns and big cities along the way.
Frontier Ruckus’s core group consists of songsmith and frontman Matthew Milia (guitar, vocals, harmonica and pedal steel), Zachary Nichols (singing saw, melodica, euphonium, trumpet and alto horn), David W. Jones (banjo, dobro, backing vocals), and Ryan Etzcorn (drums, percussion). A rather effective lineup, this one, with both new and old members giving it their all. Milia has been in Frontier Ruckus from the beginning, when both he and David W. Jones started the endeavor in or around 2003. The band’s first recording, an EP titled I Am The Water You Are Pumping was released in 2006. In 2008, the band released their first full-length album The Orion Songbook on Quite Scientific Records to a fair amount of praise. All in all, The Orion Songbook was rather well received. And it was later followed-up by a six-song EP titled Way Upstate & the Crippled Summer, pt 1 in 2009, which was released as part of the double-vinyl edition of The Orion Songbook. Most recently, in July of 2010, North Carolina’s Ramseur Records released Deadmalls & Nightfalls. Probably Frontier Ruckus’s finest contribution to date, Deadmalls & Nightfalls has received a good deal of praise from both press and fans alike. A writer for Rolling Stone, J. Edward Keyes, offered that Milia conjures “what might happen had Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum been raised in a log cabin,” while Andrew Dietzel at PopMatters stated that Frontier Ruckus “through some kind of rare ability, turned memories into melodies and transformed a from-the-inside-out examination of their native Michigan into a creaky back-porch storytelling session relevant well beyond the Great Lakes. Deadmalls and Nightfalls is a musical map to the psyches of its performers. You will want to know the words by heart to sing under the haze of summer starlight, alongside the roaming river, while drifting down forgotten backroads, and contemplating the causes and effects of urban sprawl.”
Some bands and singer/songwriters pull their geographical locations into their songs, giving them a native feel, an endemic sound, and Frontier Ruckus is just such a band; Michigan is very clearly present in the both the music and the lyrics of their songs. In fact, their song titles have always made references to the landmarks and nature, towns and cities, and people and things specific to Michigan and the surrounding areas…titles like “Adirondack Amish Holler,” “Ontario,” “Mohawk, New York,” “Pontiac, the Nightbrink,” “Orion Town 1, 2 & 3,” “The Great Laketown,” and many more. Their songs seem to be just as much a tribute to the Northeast as to the ghosts of their pasts, the footprints of memory that can still be followed back to earlier times, the very real and solid here and now. It’s all that the here and now consists of, but over a background of boarded-up buildings and ramshackle houses, pines bending in the wind and branches heavy with snow, the blurry faces of passersby, rusty chain link fences and broken-down vehicles in lots overgrown with weeds, and a worn and dirty welcome mat at a familiar front door.