[8 April 2013]
With their new album Eternity of Dimming, Frontier Ruckus have created a quintessential double-album, complete with all the benefits and problems that label suggests. The 20 songs and 90 minutes of music are probably essential to capture all of songwriter and singer Matthew Milia’s ideas and words, but the length also makes for a demanding stretch of listening, raising the old questions about editing and pretension in pop and all that good stuff. What matters, though, is if the scope of the art warrants the size of the listen. In the case of this album, the answer is a decided yes, but…
It’s tough to deny the scope of Milia’s imaginative world. The setting may remain his Michigan hometown, but the vision seems relocatable. The songs may be drifting into a western prairie, but it wouldn’t be hard to transpose them to, say, Arkansas. The album moves through trailer parks and loading docks with a sense of decay and loss, but the memory rightly resists turning autumnal tones to deep sadness as much as it resists turning past emotion into fruitless nostalgia.
Milia’s writing keeps the listener off-balance by his strange structure. It’s carefully crafted stream-of-consciousness (used in the non-derogatory sense usually applied to random lyrics). The syntax works, but sentences in fragments blend to the point that transcribing the lyrics consistently requires interpretative decisions if you go for punctuation (the enclosed lyric booklet doesn’t). There’s a meeting point of modernist prose and hip hop and folk stories that would be a disaster in less gifted hands.
Musically, Frontier Ruckus do what they’ve always done, with some evolution. There are lots of midtempo indie-folk numbers here, with many songs avoiding traditional structures. Coupling the word-heavy delivery with the music offers references to Okkervil River, but a countrified Neutral Milk Hotel is just as good a touch point.
The band is tight and talented, but while each song is surprising, the album doesn’t vary enough over the course of its length. I’m sure this album will find plenty of listeners to give this one focused listens in dark rooms, but the musical consistency wears just a bit. This, coupled with the need to listen carefully to catch and parse Milia’s thousands of words, makes the album feel not just full, but overflowing.
If that overflow turns to surfeit, it’s time to question the editing. Eternity of Dimming will likely be Milia’s biggest vision; it may be a masterpiece of sorts. However, it doesn’t hold for its full 90 minutes. It’s tough to say what tracks should be cut (okay, maybe “Nightmares of Space” and “Surgery”, for starters), but something could go. It doesn’t help that the first disc is nearly flawless while disc two has too many lulls and stumbles. Whatever Milia has to say—and he has plenty to say that’s worth saying—he could have done something genius by figuring out how to say it more succinctly. If there’d have been a follow-up album, or even a fan-focused disc of outtakes or whatever, there’d be no problem. It may be a tired complaint, but it might be a useful one.
Even so, Frontier Ruckus really have created a memorable album. Its grandness does grant it a high replay value, with surprises and insights coming on future listens. In a decade, that value may outweigh its outsized nature (and I’m sure there’s a segment of its audience that will hail this one as brilliant), but for now, it’s just a little heavy going down.