True to their name, Frontier Ruckus has been making exuberant noise across the boundaries of states and countries since the inception of their 2007 debut The Orion Songbook. On the surface their music is a careful blend of folk and bluegrass, but below the obvious layer many fans sensed an intangible element ingrained within the notes and lyrics 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. The challenge for the young and (mostly) bearded band on their second album was to recreate that magic of their first without generating eye rolls reserved for longwinded, forgetful grandfathers.
Sophomore slump or redundancy are not words in the lexicon of Frontier Ruckus because Deadmalls and Nightfalls not only outdoes it predecessor, it reaches of level of top-notch songwriting most groups never attain on a greatest hits compilation. That said, their new record is not as immediately accessible as their first, nor is it of the same vaguely melancholic whiskey-soaked stripe. The sense of boyish wonder of frontman Matthew Milia’s ambivalent recollections still persist in a refined fashion however, evident from the first sparse and anxious chords of “Nerves of the Nightmind” to the closing softness of the Oldham-esque “Pour Your Nighteyes”. Undoubtedly, something is noticeably different with Frontier Ruckus this time around, and it couldn’t sound any better.
The most obvious difference is the attention paid by the band to diversity of pace and rhythm in almost every song, including lush breakdowns in tempo, such as the dancing banjo bridge and choral transition of “Ontario”. Lyrically, Milia has advanced into far more prose-like territory that reconciles content with a relatively intricate rhyme scheme. “The lamp shadow dampness, the safeness of campus, the water of your high school eyes / Some stadium, some old college tries”, sings Milia on “Springterror” in his unmistakable and emotively quavering voice. Snippets like this are staples throughout the album, memorable glimpses of another man’s thoughts that will insert themselves happily into the mind and out of the lungs of many a listener.
Anna Burch’s backing vocals, on the other hand, have been drastically reduced, perhaps by her own accord, or perhaps to give Milia more room to breathe. Indeed, for whatever reason, she is no longer a part of the Frontier Ruckus roster. Zachary Nichol’s singing saw has also been subdued, though it has been tastefully supplemented by his horn, lending the band an air of Calexico and even Cake, as on “Silverfishes”. David Jones still plays the bluegrass hell out of his banjo, and Ryan Etzcorn provides the perfect percussive foundation. Despite these small alterations, nowhere is the unique chemistry and instrumental cohesion of Frontier Ruckus more noticeable than the album’s centerpiece “Pontiac, the Nightbrink”. This eight-minute opus revolves around the abandonment of consumerism and its physical fronts, specifically the now defunct Summit Place Mall (visible as a stark snow-covered shell on the album artwork) where Milia’s mother used to work.
Without question, Frontier Ruckus have succeeded in capturing the very essence of an entire state and translated it into a universal experience, similar to, but still apart from, the work of Sufjan Stevens. This kind of unabashedly sincere and disarmingly honest ode is refreshing, to be sure, but more than that it’s a charming look into one man’s existential vision of the world through an idiosyncratic local lens.
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.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.