From the campus of Michigan State University

New Album Review: Frontier Ruckus' Deadmalls & Nightfalls

Frontier Ruckus: Deadmalls & Nightfalls Review

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve been to Michigan at some point in your life. You’ve probably driven through tangled cookie-cutter neighborhoods, you’ve spent the daylight in sticky humidity swatting at bugs, you’ve walked across oceans of asphalt parking-lots of strip malls, and in the night you’ve strained your eyes at the stars over the light pollution of the towns. You’ve probably seen what happens to towns when they’ve blossomed and stretch out as far as they could before slowly fading away. All of this is exactly what Deadmalls & Nightfalls, the Frontier Ruckus’ latest full-length (Ramseur Records), sounds like.

In many ways, Deadmalls is about memory. Memories aren’t linear, they aren’t concise, they aren’t instant. They’re organic, they weave, they unfold fluidly, they sprawl, just like suburbia, just like Deadmalls. Matthew Milia, the chief songwriter for Frontier Ruckus leads us through his sometimes muddled, sometimes dark and humid, but always enchanting reflections on Michigan.

As with The Orion Songbook, Milia doesn’t aim for concise lyricism; lines are sometimes so crammed with lyrics that its difficult to keep up with the allusion, allegory, and imagery. This, however, is not a bad thing. Instead, it’s one of the most rewarding qualities about Frontier Ruckus. The lyrics are so filled with scenery and memories, often accompanied by buoyant harmonies, that the songs are rewarding long after the first listen. The album is abound with references to Michigan landmarks and geography (the Pontiac Silverdome, White Lake, East Lansing, Sylvan Lake, and on), but the album is somehow able to translate specificity into universality. However, the songs bypass obvious emotions, instead using open ambivalence to create an entire landscape of feeling into their songs. “And what is left in my will when the lilac breath is leaving / You are a dark saviour / I do need saving / All our hot behavior will not deliver me,” warbles Milia on “I Do Need Saving,” one of several tracks that explore the sense of longing that so frequently accompanies reflection on the past.

The album starts with “Nerves of the Nightmind,” a song rippling with feverish banjo, thundering drums and, briefly, ragtime piano. The entire album is intricately crafted, with time changes, key changes, harmonies, and a vast array of instrumentation, but does well to avoid sounding crowded, especially on the more sparse tracks . Though there aren’t any real departures from their alt folk/bluegrass style, Frontier Ruckus introduces a previously unseen sense for complexity which, coupled with the lyrical meanderings laden with references to rural and suburban life, make for all-together impressive song writing. Acoustic guitars, percussion, singing saw, banjo, violin, and intermittent horns are the perfect match for Milia’s earnest warble, all grounded in the Michigan scenery and stories of loved ones, family, travels. “Pour Your Nighteyes,” a short, stripped down song with stunning harmonies performed by Anna Burch, is a quiet exit song that ties together the album’s sense of longing with its gentler side. Deadmalls & Nighfalls is ultimately a more sophisticated, complex album that is a logical and impressive progression from their previous LP The Orion Songbook.

Matt Revers