It’s easy to get stuck in a rut. That’s true of life in general, but it holds even more true creatively. Especially if that form of creativity is how you make a living. For example, a musician might have years of prolific songwriting that envelopes all genres and styles. But once that artist starts making money and realizes it’s a certain kind of song people are willing to pay for, they tend to start making the same thing over and over. I know it isn’t the most popular opinion, but I feel like this has happened to bands like The National and Radiohead (though Radiohead has been stuck for about a decade now, so that’s nothing new). It sucks because they obviously have the talent to make good music-and it isn’t even that the new music is BAD or any WORSE than their previous efforts, it’s just the same.
That said, I was extremely pleased with the unexpected turns on Alio, Fort Frances’s first full-length in a long, long time. I always expect good things because David McMillin writes good songs and Jeff Piper and Aaron Kiser join him to form a great trio that can play and harmonize with the best of them. Throw in producer Sam Kassirer and you really can’t miss. In fact, on the new album they make a direct hit. It’s not only the best thing Fort Frances has done; it’s one of the best albums of the year.
A few of the songs on Alio also appear on last year’s EP No One Needs To Know Our Name, which is fine. The new songs take the sounds from that EP and expand them into places you never would have fathomed. As soon as I heard the first 30 seconds of “Take The Wheel,” I knew this record was special. I didn’t even think it was Fort Frances-I really had to stop what I was doing and look at my iPod to make sure I didn’t accidentally change it to something else. If you go back and listen to The Atlas you can hear little hints that they might try something like this someday, like the trippy synths here would really take “Losing You” to another level. Hearing this song was one of the happiest moments of my music-writing career.
Then there’s the funky Gotye-inspired version of “Everything Is Starting To Make Sense.” The song has been played for the past couple years as a kind of folk/rock acoustic tune that sounded cool but nothing like it does today. Hearing how the band evolved a song is always fun and it gives you a new respect for them as artists because a lot of choices had to happen to make the original demo into its current form. Really impressive stuff.
And, of course, with 2016 being “The Year Of The Wall,” you can’t forget “Building A Wall.” It predates Trump’s ridiculous hate-mongering, but they do share an isolationist viewpoint: “Memories are not meant to be kept inside a frame. Before we drive out to the coast tonight, I would drive myself insane. I’m building a wall…inside the back of my mind.” I don’t think Trump supporters would actually enjoy the song aside from the “I’m building a wall” chorus, though. It’s a bit too subtle and intelligent for most of them to comprehend.
The closing tracks reminds me a little of the beautiful Bombay Bicycle Club album Flaws in its simplicity. It’s just some piano and guitar with David’s voice doubled up and drowned in reverb like he’s singing at himself in a deep canyon. One of the lines really sums up the album perfectly for me: “You will be born anew, before these mountains move. There’s a record spinning in the distance-over and over and over and over again.” In my case, that record has been Alio, and it’s gonna keep spinning for the foreseeable future.
You can pre-order Alio here. It’s coming at the end of April, when Fort Frances will be playing a run of shows including Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Charlotte, Nashville, and Jackson, MI. Check out full info on the band’s Facebook page.