TALES OF THE NEW FRONTIER Frontier Ruckus

Michigan band heads off for
the wild, wild West.

 

BY
BRIAN STAKER

 

Location,
location, location. It’s the key to success in real estate, but also to the new
indie acoustic bands that are rooted to the mythology of a particular region.
Orion, Michigan’s Frontier Ruckus has
assembled a story of life in the Great Lakes
region that seems anachronistic at first, but resonates as a both a place out
of time and something that could exist anywhere.

 

Perhaps
it has something to do with singer/songwriter Matthew Milia’s graduate degree
in creative writing. What is they say about writers who try to start rock
bands? Stephen King and Keanu Reeves notwithstanding. In Milia’s case it
informs the songs on the group’s first full-length Orion Songbook (Quite
Scientific) with a narrative energy of a space that exists beyond the purely
academic, because you can actually recognize the inhabitants.

 

Like
Ogden Nash’s Spoon River Anthology and the Yoknapatawpha County of William
Faulkner, the Orion, (pronounced ‘O’-reeon’) Michigan of Frontier Ruckus seems
infused with the kind of drama or ‘ruckus’ that seems quaint under the
magnifying glass of the TV screen of the immediate, but profound in the
rear-view mirror of the past, forever receding but always seemingly as close as
the last gas station.

 

Growing
up listening to Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, meeting banjo player
David  Jones in high school introduced
him to bluegrass and later, Neutral Milk Hotel. Then a couple of years ago the
rest of the personnel coalesced: Zachary Nichols on saw and trumpet,
percussionist Ryan Etzcorn, and singer Anna Burch.

 

The
album is drawing comparisons as wide as Stephen Foster and Neutral Milk Hotel
for that band’s anachronistic surrealism, but Milia says “that’s a misconception,
because of the ‘roots’ sound; it’s really modern.” The rurally-instrumented
sound, with banjo, trumpet, harmonica, pedal steel and even singing saw, is
more a representation of searching for the past than the past itself. “The
album is about different types of connection, but the one thing you can’t
connect to is the past,” Milia notes. These attempts are very personal, but you
can relate to the attempts, and that makes the music convincing.

 

Orion,
Michigan is a town on the environs of Detroit, but musically
it’s countries away from the urban ‘garage rock’ of bands like the Stooges and
the White Stripes. “It’s north of Detroit, and
North, whether in Michigan or upstate New York, where my dad’s
family is from, represents escape,” Milias explains. “A house is a container of
memories, and Detroit
is the core, starting point of a container that broke.”

 

The
song cycle is a gradual change between Detroit
and points outward, and disintegrates into something more natural, bucolic. “Detroit represents the
crippled backbone,” he feels. “There’s so much beauty but it’s dilapidated as
hell. The attempts to revitalize make it even stranger; there are new
developments next to slums and run-down areas. The juxtaposition is actually
pretty.” His mother had told him of a Detroit
so pristine you could eat off the streets, and in the song “Rosemont,” he makes
the remarkable exclamation “this road is made of flesh,” brutal yet a brilliant
metaphor for the travels memory takes.

 

“The
imagery is the most important part to me; it’s a way of dealing with the
overwhelming abundance of memory,” he explains. “Songwriting is a way of
organizing amorphous feelings into tangible reality. Just living there all my
life there’s so much, it’s almost a burden. My girlfriend was from Bloomfield, which I was
just north of, and it’s another metaphor for the attraction of magnetic north.”

 

“Adirondack
Amish Holler” shows that the outward migration has proceeded beyond Michigan or indeed any
geographical boundaries to the cartographical chart of memory; the map that’s
imbedded in the mind. Besides the lyrical impact of his visual storytelling,
there’s a certain degree of pain: “The latter days are so much harder than you
could have ever known,” he sings in “Latter Days.” “It’s about first love, lost
and thrown away. It’s a past promise you can never return to.”

 

Milia
was always enamored of the Wild West in school. “It defined the end to things,”
he recalls. “One step into the wild and you were away from the grid. It defined
the boundary of experience; what was known.” Their live show contains all the
energy of the attempts to break free from the bonds of that frontier and then
reconnect with the memory.  They are
booking their first national tour for next year.

 

“It’s
an hour long songbook; I had to get them over with,” he relates. “It’s as much
writing songs as it is about dealing with memory. I had to release it. The next
album will focus on a new mythology. As a writer, the only thing I can do is
deal with one mythology at a time.”

 

 

 

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