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Last night, Michigan’s Frontier Ruckus brought their unique brand of sprawling, literary Americana to Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge. Taking the stage at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night, the band played to a modest crowd of close friends and die-hard fans. For an hour, they treated the crowd to a sampling of songs taken from their three existing LPs as well as their upcoming fourth, and transported us from New York City to a larger, intangible, folktale version of rural and/or suburban America.
The band, whose instrumentation features banjo, horns and musical saw, has always had a sound and thematic coherence all their own. Their first two records, The Orion Songbook and Deadmalls & Nightfalls, are piercingly sincere portraits of romance and youth, ripe with close harmonies and meditations on complicated, tender love. The band’s preoccupation with this side of Americana went from silver screen to IMAX on 2013’s staggering double-LP Eternity Of Dimming, which veritably overflows with images of middle-class American youth in the 1990s. Songwriter and singer Matthew Milia obsesses over his childhood milieu, treating junk drawers, garage sales, mini-van floors and the parking lot behind the 7-Eleven like hallowed ground. On Eternity Of Dimming, the band dissects and explodes childhood memories, treading and retreading the lines that bleed when the darkness of adulthood infringes upon the brightness of childhood. Upon its release, the album felt like an exhaustive culmination of everything the band had been aiming for up until that point.
So, where to go from there? The fourth Frontier Ruckus LP, Sitcom Afterlife, is due out in November on Quite Scientific Records. Last night at Mercury Lounge, the band provided some indication of what the LP might hold, making their way through note-perfect renditions of the first single, Sad Modernity, as well as the recently-debuted Bathroom Stall Hypnosis. These songs, revolving around ear-worm guitar and vocal hooks, found the band exploring their pop tendencies a little more openly. The new songs are also delivered with a sense of humor absent from the band’s previous albums: “This is a song about being drunk at your enemy’s wedding,” Milia quipped of Sad Modernity.
Milia’s clear, resonant and nasally voice was in fine form last night, fleshed out further by vocalist Anna Burch. Right from the night’s opening number, the pseudo-duet Mona and Emmy, Burch sang wonderfully. Her voice blends well with Milia’s, and her harmonies are a defining characteristic of the band’s early sound. Also welcome last night was the addition of a new drummer and bassist, each of them playing his second ever show with the band. Flanked by banjoist David Jones and multi-instrumentalist Zach Nichols, the band sounded full and tight. They successfully pulled off excellent renditions of songs from every Frontier Ruckus album, including Eternity Of Dimming war horses Dealerships and Eyelashes, triumphant Deadmalls & Nightfalls opener Nerves Of The Nightmind, and to close the show, early-career favorite Adirondack Amish Holler.
Throughout the night, the band maintained an intimate, conversational rapport with the crowd. As a direct result of this, one fan took the opportunity to demand that the band play a song called The Tower. Milia and company were momentarily disarmed by the sternness of the request, but honored it valiantly. The rest of the band exited the stage to allow Milia and Nichols to perform a bittersweet, delicate rendition of one of the standout ballads from Deadmalls & Nightfalls as the night’s penultimate song. The unplanned performance may very well have been the highlight of the show, and it worked to showcase the band’s versatility and mastery of the entirety of their own extensive and gorgeous catalogue.
Frontier Ruckus will play tonight at Brooklyn’s Rough Trade and stop in Boston and Philadelphia before returning to Michigan, leaving us to eagerly await additional tour dates and the eventual release of Sitcom Afterlife.