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Frontier Ruckus – On the Northline (Loose Music)

MMXVII. The 17th year of the 3rd millennium. The 8th year of the 2010s decade. Or simply 2017. How long ago was that? Could you even remember what you were doing at that time? At times before the Pandemic, before Donald Trump’s reign over the US, before the release of Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 5, before Brexit, before full-scale wars in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and even before a huge AI advance. That year, Frontier Ruckus released their fifth album, Enter the Kingdom. And exactly seven years later, they came back with its follow-up. It certainly feels like we’re in a totally new reality right now, but did their music make the same leap?

While during the 17th year of the 3rd millennium, the whole world was listening to Kendrick Lamar’s Damn, Lorde’s Melodrama, Taylor Swift’s Reputation, and Phoebe Bridgers’ debut Stranger in the Alps, Frontier Ruckus’ co-fronts Matthew Milia and Anna Burch were singing about listening to Gin Blossoms’ ‘Found Out About You’ and Matthew Sweet’s ‘Sick of Myself’, about “the kitchen sink and dirty dishes themes”, and about a $27 debt from an ex, among other mental anxieties and mundane issues. They always were known for really smart and cunning passages about “the piling of gerunds in the snow” and watching “90s sitcoms at my dad’s place”. Beginning with raw and wise-ass Americana, which might probably have served as a blueprint for Black Country, New Road (‘The Latter Days’), after more than a decade, they finally came to The National-like lush and polished sound on their previous record. And all of that is still with them on On the Northline.

Almost all. This time they managed it without Anna Burch, who is right now very content with a solo career. She graduated from Frontier Ruckus University with perfect marks and flew away to make ’60s influenced indie pop. Unfortunately, her absence is highly noticeable here. Their new venture sounds a bit flat, orphaned without her aura and tender harmonies, which were almost inaudible, for example, on ’27 Dollars’ or ‘A&W Orange and Brown’ to a listener who came in from the cold. If something arrived somewhere, then somewhere it left, as they say. However, David Jones and Zachary Nichols are still in the band, and their innovative and jagged approach to arrangements and to using a wide plethora of kooky instruments as usual makes their sound a lot more complicated than just orchestral- or chamber folk pop. Under apparent simplicity, there hides some depth. By its eclectic and diversity, it reminds me of Animal Collective, Nickel Creek, or even Lankum. In other words, there’s a lot happening on the record.

After so many years of waiting for a release, it’s always intriguing to hear how a band absorbed, recycled, and pushed through themselves so many crucial world events and how their lives have changed during that time. Yet, this is definitely not about Frontier Ruckus, one of the most notable singers of common people, little life, and invisible everyday moments. On the Northline is full of such precious details which Orhan Pamuk could include in his Museum of Innocence. Almost through every line here peeks “syrup and saccharin”, “brandishing another beer”, “the scratch-offs and night coughs”, and other little nothings of everyone’s life. However, passage of time and growing up also left its mark here in lyrics about “a 10-year-older version of you”, “rotting inheritance”, and Milia’s newfound wife. Speaking of changes, one can notice that his voice finally shed the cracked and rusty Elliott Smith’s and Conor Oberst’s vocal modulations, which make their music sound more self-sufficient now.

Partly, this offering feels like a step back to the roots, which might be liked by their longtime hardcore fans, but the sleek production and bright instrumentation still reveal them as professionals with over 20 years of experience in creating multilayered canvases of sound. Resourceful throwbacks like ‘Clarkston Pasture’ or ‘In the Money’, infused with twinges of Americana and tunes in the vein of fellow countryman Sufjan Stevens, may sound like every track from their playbook. We also have a fully instrumental ‘Wherefore’ here, reminding the true fans of ‘Counterfeits’. Whereas many of the other cuts have a lot of subtle surprises and uncommon side steps. Horn arrangements of ‘Mercury Sable’ and ‘I’m Not the Boy’ give out almost Beirut’s or Sea Power’s level of gorgeous nostalgia, ‘On the Northline’ and ‘Bloomfield Marriott’ have Kurt Vile-tipped strums intersecting with Bridgers-reminiscent trumpet, while the opener ‘Swore I Had a Friend’ provides us with the familiar mood of dEUS, which also can be found in the other songs here.

On first glance, the progress of Frontier Ruckus sonics is not very obvious, especially considering such a large time gap between the two last albums. Meanwhile, this slight difference is the basis of their sixth album. Thinking in terms of historical shifts and looking at such a big number obtained by subtraction of 2017 from the current year is hard to make yourself take in mind “kitchen sinks” and “high school braces”. Seven years is 70% of the whole Beatles’ existence. During this period of time, a lot of bona fide stars have been born and forgotten. And the ability to think and sing about small joys and not to forget about your loved ones, like Milia did in dedicated to his wife ‘First Song For Laure’, is a rare and important skill. Because the world will always spin and last almost forever, which can’t be said about you.


God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.