It’s just about impossible for artists to escape their influences. That task is even more difficult when we’re talking about rock and roll. Play country rock and you might as well call it a day. In fact, I propose that most of today’s alt-country bands should be forced to include their primary influence in their band name. For example, those indebted to Neil Young could go with something like The Younglings, or perhaps the Pittsburgh Neilers. If you worship at Gram Parsons’ feet, take the name the Gram Crackers and cut me a check later. At least that kind of advance warning would spare us from having to hear another tired album.
The real magic happens when influence is used as a jet pack rather than a straightjacket. Doing so is no easy feat, but with their self-titled debut, Frontier Index prove that country rock need not continue ploughing the same fields; there are alternatives and the same choices need not be made over and over again.
The album doesn’t give us any sounds we haven’t heard before, but by putting those sounds in a fresh context they’re given a new vigour. The band’s mix of influences, from ’80s college rock to Hank Williams weepers, come together to place country rock in a new light. The result is a kind of fever-dream country music.
The standard tools are used as before — twangy guitars, lonesome harmonies, simple rhythms — but by refracting the music through the lens of post-punk guitar textures, the clichés avoid the sense of inevitability that afflicts too many other bands. San Antone, the album’s fourth track, is a perfect example of Frontier Index’s ability to make new things out of old parts, as a song that begins as a generic “gotta get back there” lament is gradually transformed by wah-wah guitars and organ stabs into a whirling dust storm. It is followed by My Secret, perhaps the most traditional song on the album, and demonstrates that Frontier Index took the time to learn the foundation of their music before building upon it.
The sense of familiar dislocation that the album engenders, the feeling that we’ve been here before but never under quite the same conditions, is something that sneaks up on you as the album progresses. It’s not until the second half of the album, particularly on the back-to-back punch of Live For You and Silver Suns, that the feat the band is pulling off really hits you. At around the 3:00 mark of the latter song, when a Morricone-on-Quaaludes stomp turns into a Cure-esque echo fest and then finally reveals itself as a glittering evocation of a starry night, it becomes abundantly clear that the band has pulled off the trick of making an album with a down-home heart and a far-out head.
As befitting a first album as this is, there are kinks that need working out. At times the lyrics have something of a textbook country feel, but the familiarity is comfortable and heartfelt. It’s just that the band (Corey Hernden and John Hunter on vocals and guitar, Mick Jackson on vocals and drums, and Matt Francis on bass and guitar) is so strong musically that I’d like to see them challenge themselves to come up with words that match the inventive splendour of their music.
By demonstrating their willingness to expand upon as well as respect the boundaries of country music, Frontier Index have positioned themselves along with folks like the Silver Jews (who wrote the song from which the band takes its name) and Will Oldham as musicians intent on scrubbing off the stink of formaldehyde that pervades so much alt-country. Frontier Index has made a lovely creative album and for that reason alone I’m eager to follow whatever trail this strong young band blazes.