This one isn’t going to be a completely standard review. I think the title gives away my opinion a bit, and I hold Matthew Milia’s Keego Harbor to be one of my favorite albums of all time. Now, I’m a bit behind, as this album came out July 16 2021. A bit old for the new release range, but I am hoping to get a few more reviews of my favorite albums up, if just to let you, dear reader, get to know my music tastes a bit better. I suppose it’s appropriate I got into this album late, as I was also pretty late to the party on Matthew’s band Frontier Ruckus, who I didn’t really get into until college. I absolutely loved the verbose prose-like nature of Matthew’s songwriting, and I think it’s only gotten better as he’s continued on as a musician. I got the chance to see them at a house show (Lamplight music festival I think, not sure what year) and they were completely magnetic as a three-piece. Matthew Milia’s solo work puts his effortless Americana lyricism first, and with Keego Harbor it’s resulted in a beautiful, consistent, and thoughtful album.
Keego Harbor is a dangerous cocktail of existential dread and childhood nostalgia, but its focus on the power of place, of family, and of love keeps the darker turnings in lines like “In the first part of life you just let in the light / And you loop it like a DVD menu / And someday in your 30s all your colors lose their bite / And you can’t change the channel now can you” from weighing the album down with dread, but embracing it and learning to deal with it. In a lot of ways this album feels darkly hopeful, especially the final lines of the albums namesake “Someday I think I’ll move back to Keego Harbor / ‘Cause keeping alive’s hard / But giving up’s even harder / And I’m not ready to die / I’ll just go simplify / In Keego Harbor.” I’m tempted to go through each song and pull meaning, and the depth is certainly there in his effortless lyrical exploration of Metro Detroit, but I think what’s truly masterful about Matthew’s songwriting on this album is that these songs are consistently thought provoking, and forcing the listener to self reflect, just as it seems Matthew has while writing this album.
The lyrical themes and literary tie to place are not the only thing that keep this album consistent. While I find the vocal production to be occasionally a bit too clean, Matthews vocals aren’t lacking character, and his wife Lauren’s backing harmonies are gorgeous, and add great texture. There is a good depth of instrumentation for every song, almost all of them include the soaring steel guitar of Pete Ballard, and various instruments (Guitars, organ, bass etc.) played by Matthew and co-producer Ben Collins (drums, bass, organ etc.) with occasional piano played by Ryan Hay. I love the dreamy atmosphere in the songs, and its consistently a song forward country style that results in something that reminds me a bit of John Prine. While I can’t say I ever find Keego Harbor to be quite as musically exciting as Frontier Ruckus, its lyric centric, singer-songwriter approach has kept me coming back to this album more than any FR release (incredibly excited for their upcoming album whenever that drops though, obviously).
I highly, highly encourage anyone from Michigan to give this album a listen, especially those from or familiar with the Metro Detroit area. Keego Harbor, that small town between the poverty of Pontiac and the abundance of Bloomfield Hills is effortlessly wielded and channeled by Matthew Milia on this album, and used to convey themes of aging, dread, family, and love. It’s a consistent, well-paced, full, and beautiful symbol of place. Matthews dedication seems pertinent: “Dedicated to Lauren, my parents, and the holy lands surrounding Keego Harbor – out from which I bulge a humble physical extension.”
Matthew Milia’s Socials