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Michigan indie-folk foursome Frontier Ruckus surveys new territory while examining old wounds



Frontier Ruckus and Samantha Crain
10 p.m. Thursday
The Deli
309 White, Norman

They say home is where the heart is, and that's particularly true for Frontier Ruckus, which released "Deadmalls & Nightfalls" this summer. Like its 2008 debut, "The Orion Songbook," the disc weaves a rich tapestry of images culled from front man Matthew Milia's Detroit-area home over a wavering rustic ache that at times evokes The Avett Brothers.

It's woozy, affecting stuff imbued with the twilight shimmer of memory. One might call it Rust Belt Gothic because of the integral role played by the decaying metropolis and its oft-wintry environs, yet it's more than mere travelogue. Between David Jones' archaic banjo pluck and Milia's weary, close-to-cracking tenor, Frontier Ruckus creates a mood that mirrors the creeping desolation swallowing up the musicians' hometown.

Not that all of Detroit is crumbling. There are still rich houses and ostentatious displays of wealth, often abutting foreclosed homes and vacant lots. In Milia's songs, the outer and inner worlds blur and mix with all their contradictions.

"That diversity, that complexity and that confusion in growing up in this huge world of metro Detroit that had so many disparate social and economic areas that mingle," he said. "I would just drive around endlessly in high school almost like a cartographer, mapping all this stuff out inside of me, and trying to make sense of it."

Milia's experience with such contradictions started with attending a private Catholic high school his parents struggled to afford. It's where he met Jones, who'd been playing banjo for a dozen years, and how songwriting began to take hold of his imagination.

"I started writing songs with him in mind," Milia said. "He was kind of my counterpart that when I wrote a song, I would bring it over to his house, and we would play it together. It gave me a lot of confidence early on, which was important."

After leaving for college, Jones and Milia reconnected, and began pursuing music in earnest. Their debut was released on indie label Quite Scientific, and the move to Ramseur Records was just a lucky accident.

"We were playing on the radio in Grand Rapids and (Oklahoma musician Samantha Crain) was at the station totally incidentally. She heard us on the air through the wall and totally liked it, so she came to our show that night without introducing herself to any of us," Milia said. "But she called Dolph Ramseur and told him about us, and he really liked it and called me the next day. I was always told that's the way things happen: just the right time and place."

If "The Orion Songbook" was like a long tracking shot that traversed the Detroit area and Milia's childhood through high school, then "Deadmalls & Nightfalls" is a close-up. It's about the anxious excitement of taking off the training wheels, and the growing seriousness of both relationships and the life ahead.

"It's a very personal and relationship album in comparison," Milia said. "There's this internal room where all this stuff is happening, but outside there's wilderness that's looming, this frozen wilderness in the winter that can entice with danger or reap more confusion." "Chris Parker

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