Andrew Smentkowski and Ted Appert may hail from the most populous city in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (Marquette), but the dirty chug and plucky blues of their debut album – as Rusty Borealis – evokes the sort of gritty backwoods storytelling that could only be created by people who have lived in a place that many still regard as a permanent wilderness. A land that averages nearly 200 inches of snowfall a year and is called home by only 3% of Michigan’s residents is bound to stir the creative spirits of its inhabitants, and Fell Down Pretty is a moaning, creaking, wailing testament of what it means to call yourself a Yooper. In fact, most of its eleven tracks sound as if they were barely able to weather the same type of blizzard for which the U.P. is known.
Unsurprisingly then, this duo of multi-instrumentalists has woven a rich tapestry of local culture into their sometimes doleful but frequently comical indie-folk, melding together kitsch (images of an axe and taxidermied deer on the album’s cover) with plain and simple truths (“I drive an American truck and it doesn’t get stuck when it’s snowin’”). Heretofore mentioned album opener – and minor key floorstomper – “American Truck” is a thoughtful and enticing way to get things going, as ornate acoustic guitar patterns and banjo countermelodies eventually yield to Smentkowski’s scraggly drawl and a groove that sounds like the saddest hoedown you ever attended. “Dodge” actually moves the listener away from Middle America and toward the Southwest, eschewing the band’s favored banjo and lap steel for guitar riffs and accordion harmonies that, oddly enough, sound perfectly suited to an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.
The LP’s middle third ventures into more deliberately lo-fi territory, masking most of the vocals with static and introducing wall-of-sound guitars that recall the shoegazey predilections of Deerhunter or My Bloody Valentine. One such instance occurs on the druggy “Live Large,” in which Smentkowski warbles like Bradford Cox while fuzzy synth effects drone in the background. Similar textures are explored with “Best Rust,” an achingly gorgeous number that sounds like the world coming to life after an especially debilitating Midwestern winter; breathy vocals (“I know we are just flowin’ sunshine / and I know everything will turn out fine”), midtempo guitar strums, and keyboard solos (purportedly played on cheap Casios) lend the song a vibrant warmth lacking on the earlier tracks.
Fell Down Pretty’s last few tunes again place more of an emphasis on acoustic textures, including the mischievous “Dry Man” which boasts a wonderfully slinky bass line, yawning lap steel melodies, and accordion fragments that are shocking in their ambience. Closing tune “Passin’ Through” ends things on an uplifting note with a bouncy country two-step feel and plenty of twang to boot. Emphasizing even more of a rough and tumble folk quality are the vocal melodies, which managed to slur their way up to the correct pitch while simultaneously evoking the phrasing and contour of that old Raffi standby, “Down by the Bay.”
They may be hamming it up with references to their desolate, country-bumpkin origins, but it’s clear that the two members who comprise Rusty Borealis have the sort of vivid imaginations and technical mastery to take their homespun Americana beyond the Great Lakes. If you’re unsure, visit http://rustyborealis.com, name your price, and give Fell Down Pretty an hour of your time. Even if they don’t make it to Nashville someday, it’ll at least provide you with a deeper appreciation of the music coming from the country north of Motown.