Sometimes it takes discerning ears to pinpoint what accounts for the greatness of a rather traditional band and separates them from the ultramodern slush pile that makes up the typical listening experience in this streaming age. Click, listen, copy into playlist, then move on to the next few minutes of music discovery and/or following hype-assisted crowds.
To me, Fort Frances’ Alio is a sort of record that breathes and exists somewhat outside of the sphere of the horizon-less Spotify shuffle. These are, pound for pound, the Chicago-based trio’s catchiest songs to date. That probably doesn’t mean much to those uninitiated with the band, but they’ve taken the yearning, red-blooded core of Atlas, Harbour, and Breathing Room - good songs worth revisiting over time - and they have created a bona fide rock album that not only ceases to forfeit the roots of where they come from but ramps up the urgency, musicianship and sense of adventurousness across the board. The production of Sam Kassirer (previous Fort Frances outings, as well as Josh Ritter and Langhorne Slim) impresses throughout the album, coaxing muscular arrangements and crispness while steering clear of commercial grandstanding. Fort Frances and Kassirer have a perceptive understanding of what best suits a song, and the songs of Alio are outstanding.
Writing about the album is a pleasure for me, because I’ve been fortunate enough to have been living with many of these songs for more than a year. “Days Get Heavy,” “These Are the Mountains Moving,” “Best of Luck,” “Anonymous,” and “This Year Is Yours” all compromised the band’s 2015 EP, No One Needs to Know Our Name, a collection of songs that was in as frequent of a rotation as anything else I listened to over the past year. I begrudgingly held off writing much about that EP because I (*full disclosure) contributed to Fort Frances’ bio ahead of that release. Come year end, I regretted not finding the proper outlet for attempting to share my two cents for how much I loved No One Needs to Know Our Name.
Cue the glory of second chances. When frontman and songwriter David McMillin sent Alio my way earlier this year, I was thrilled to discover the record consists of all of those songs and a handful of new ones that retain all of their spirit and depth, each one worthy of being a standalone single and each one intertwined in the fabric of the album as a whole. McMillin, Aaron Kiser and Jeff Piper have been working on bringing this album into the world for a few years now, and I can only imagine how tough it has been going day to day for all that time sitting on songs this great, just waiting on the opportunity for others to hear them.
Vonnegut would say “so it goes.” And so it does.
Such is the reality of the striving artist now more than perhaps ever before, especially for musicians in this age of the streaming content blitzkrieg.
It shouldn’t be all that surprising that this was the perspective Fort Frances came from when writing and composing Alio. It is scrawled right there in the modest manifesto of No One Needs to Know Our Name. It’s evoked in the nostalgic Polaroid Alio cover art: a boy in sunglasses, blue sweats and cowboy boots, a nondescript patrol car, a suburban driveway, all the not-yet-vanquished dreams and all the weight of the adult world just out of frame, all the ways our senses and sense of self are spinning in the opaque cyclone of the Cloud. Much of that may not be overt on first listen to any of these songs, but it’s almost impossible to miss in McMillin’s songwriting, his callbacks to lyrics from other songs, his expeditions into the caverns of his being while the modern world keeps on spinning on a digital axis that gets easier and easier to get lost in but harder to define in terms of what makes each of us a human, a lover, an artist, or a salvageable individual.
“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…
Can you feel the army in your bones?
It sings of love and sex and loneliness and faith and truth and absolutes” – “This Year Is Yours”
The coup that Fort Frances pulls on Alio is an achievement that many bands strive for but usually come up short. The trio build upon an already solid foundation of melodic songwriting, channel an earned chemistry from years playing alongside in intimate clubs and tap into that shared language in the studio, and patiently plunder the catalog and hone the sound of ten cohesive songs that soar beyond perhaps even conservative expectations. Compared to the more folk-minded compositions of Atlas and Harbour, Alio is a huge sounding rock record with a steady barrage of indelible, rousing pop hooks. The drums hammer staccato march formations (“You Got the Wrong Man”) and accelerate to climactic bombast (“Building a Wall”), they crib Moon and Antarctica-esque angles and coolness (“Sigh of Relief”), jubilant horns propel the introspective mission statement of “Anonymous,” a cathartic shout-along chorus anchors the unpredictability of “Days Get Heavy,” and steady streams of crescendos and harmonious, elegantly-layered bridges keep the songs unapologetically alive. At the beating heart of it all is McMillin’s world-weary yet idealistic outlook, an irreplaceable asset that allows all of his mediations on traveling, loves lost, mountains moving, and unframed memories to come through the speakers with equal parts rugged beauty and vulnerability while keeping the narrative moving towards each chorus in winsome and wistful rock songs.
Throughout Alio, Fort Frances construct songs with a classicist pop-rock verse-chorus-verse-chorus that, on paper or first listen, may make it tough to decipher what makes this trio special. But, when taken as a whole and given the chance to be absorbed into the surroundings of one’s day, it can become something more of a concentrated challenge not to take for granted just how great and special these songs are. That, after all, is what strikes me as the overriding goal Fort Frances has set out to bring to life: to make songs that have the potential to galvanize and be popular, but also say something – make empathetic observations about some not necessarily young (but not necessarily old) way of American life, and make it sound not terribly out of place with some of the good stuff that has stood the test of time on rock radio, while also not being fashionably in place alongside the majority of music being streamed into the millions. The goal is simply to have a relationship with and, perhaps, fall in love with the songs and promise not take them for granted should they hit you in the sweet spot.