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Best of What's Next: Frontier Ruckus

July 8, 2010  |  6:00am
Best of What's Next: Frontier Ruckus

Hometown: Ann Arbor and Detroit, Mich.
Album: Deadmalls and Nightfalls
Band Members: Matthew Milia (vocals, guitar, harmonica, pedal steel), David W. Jones (banjo, dobro, vocals), Zachary Nichols (multi-instrumentalist), Ryan “Smalls” Etzcorn (percussion)
For Fans Of: Neil Young, Iron & Wine, The Everybodyfields

Last year, the pensive folk-rock quintet Frontier Ruckus signed to North Carolina’s Ramseur Records, recorded their second LP and all quit their day jobs to make music full time; in recent months, they’ve toured the U.S. and Europe. Some might consider this all to be “living the dream.” But for Matthew Milia, it’s more like a nightmare—literally. “We have a 15-passenger white utility van, which is like my nightmare from childhood of being robbed,” the 24-year-old frontman admits, sitting in the vehicle outside of a cafe in Louisville, Ky. while the rest of the band eats breakfast. “The robbers would pull into the driveway with that van.”

Today, Frontier Ruckus is on the way to Chicago for a night before heading back to Ann Arbor, Mich., where they got their start, for a big homecoming show. To say the band feels a deep connection to the state is like saying Milia’s hometown of Detroit has turned out a few cars over the years. Their new album, Deadmalls and Nightfalls (out July 20), is a sublimely melancholy catalog of ruminations on the city where he grew up, dreaming about white vans in the same house and attending the same school all the while. The songs evoke not just the shadow-slatted memories of a still-recent adolescence but also the ineffable sadness and beauty of time’s effect on a place; in his wry warble, Milia mourns “the shuttered deadmall and the Sears / where my mother worked for years” and a “thick-carpet-world where the / street lamps explode in the spring,” with banjo, singing saw and harmonica underpinning the shambling nostalgia.

The songs are all about Michigan, but that hasn’t discouraged more far-flung fans; oddly, there’s something about the specificity of Milia’s memories that translates to a broader experience, or at least to pockets like Denton, Texas and Norman, Okla. “Those are some of our favorite places,” he says, “where you’re not really expecting much, but you show up and everyone’s singing your songs.”

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