On first listen, Frontier Ruckus 'debut, The Orion Songbook, felt a lot like Palace to me. Matthew Milia's voice has the same creaky tone as Will Oldham's, and the opening "Animals Need Animals" feels like a funeral for an era, a town, a life never lived. But not even Oldham can be Palace anymore: the indie audiences won't tolerate songs broken to their core by love and loss, a fidelity that sounds anything less than pristine on iPod earbuds or narratives too opaque to be used to montage the next very special episode of One Tree Hill. In short, even in the supposedly safe haven of indie, there are rules to expression and limits to how far you can go.
Frontier Ruckus play the game well. A song as put together as "Mount Marcy" — Colin Meloy at his poppiest and most ambitious — easily balances a million "Animals Need Animals," and with a song like "The Blood" they manage to do both at once: a harrowing lyric coupled with a melody and arrangement that's strikingly pristine. And really, after further review, it's the Decemberists that loom over The Orion Songbook, the orchestrated (there's a wide variety of instrumentation here) and somewhat baroque, formal feel to the folk songwriting.
All of this might seem like I'm implying that Milia is not his own man, doesn't have his own things to say. This is far from the case. Lyrically, The Orion Songbook is pretty stunning. It's overrun with melodramatic characters and the broken, imaginary town of Orion, Michigan, all of it feeling like early Dreiser or something, Sister Carrie returning to Chicago a shamed harlot, Milia and his Frontier Ruckus bandmates her scorned family birthed into shame. The album is hued in a similar shade of dread, and it's from those broken pieces that these fine folk songs drain.