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Frontier Ruckus, The Windmill, Brixton, May 12th 2010

May 14, 2010

Rustie Jim M has been saying good things about this Michigan band for a while now, so after checking them out on MySpace and various podcasts and radio shows, I decided to go along and see them for myself. Their gig at The Windmill last year was well received and the place began to fill up as support the Treetop Flyers raced through their fine set of CSNY-tinged country-rock numbers. Time was tight, though – the gig had a strict 10.45 curfew, as there was to be a late show featuring Spiral Stairs, the band led by Pavement guitarist Scott Kannberg. Pavement themselves were playing down the road at the Academy and I wondered about sticking around after this show to hang out with the beautiful people, but then I thought naah – must get sleep, and I’ll be seeing Pavement on Thursday anyway.

I said ‘hi’ to Frontier Ruckus at the merch table and asked them when they’d flown in. They said they’d come in that morning and they looked shattered, poor lads – and they’d failed to get the bass guitar through Heathrow. I replied, perhaps uncharitably, “Well, at least it was only a bass,” which went down well with all of them except the bass guitarist… I made up for my rudeness by buying their CD, The Orion Songbook.

Front-man Matthew Milia introduced the first song, Silverfishes, and they launched into the set as if jet-lag didn’t exist. The sound at The Windmill can be iffy, but they quickly settled in, with David Winston Jones on banjo adding a bluegrass flavour to Millia’s more indie folk style, ably backed by Zachary Nichols on trumpet and saw, and Ryan Etzcorn on drums.

What strikes you right away about them is Milia’s singing and his lyrics. The words pour out of him, and thankfully this isn’t a case of sixth-form poetry or logorrhoea, but of a fine songwriting sensibility that promises much. Alas, it’s not possible to catch all his words, and sometimes it might help when playing live to tone down the louder band moments so as not to drown out Milia’s narratives, but by and large they get it right.

The next song, Mona And Emmy, about past loves, shows several thematic strands that run through the songs – a keen eye for childhood memories; a sense of place, particularly Detroit and its surroundings; and observations on love and all of its failings as well as its triumphs. These strands tie up to create a nostalgia that gives the songs a wistful edge, even when they’re sounding upbeat. Here’s a snatch of Rosemont, a song about a street in Detroit:
   And everybody dying here has made it back to Rosemont Street,
   The roses shake, the sidewalk aches and Detroit air is hissing at our feet.

And from Latter Days:
   And in those trash-pit-ponds you bathe and
   Oh, how you all gleam,
   Mindlessly bright where you’re wet in
   Your eye-lashing, fluid-splashing, rapid-flashing
   Canal-bleaching dream
   For me.

At times, Milia’s lyrics remind me of Gene Clark’s more Dylanesque language games – here’s an extract from Mount Marcy:
   Feel the bushes, brambles rambling,
   Ample sapling, suckling all the air
   And the North from Marcy’s hair.

Some of the slower and softer numbers are reminiscent of Gene as well, but overall the sound is very much modern American indie folk rock. After the show, Astral confessed that she doesn’t really understand or appreciate this style, and prefers the downbeat indie folk rock of Centro-matic and their ilk. I know what she means, but I think many younger American bands have a keener ‘pop’ sensibility (for want of a better word) in striving to be crowd-pleasers. With some bands, that grates and annoys, but usually it’s fine by me. What it also does is show up a difference I often see between young American and British bands. The former have a sense of dedication and commitment to what they’re doing that belies what can look like slackness or laid-backness. The latter, by contrast, often seem reluctant to put themselves forward and be serious (but not solemn) about themselves. We’re in an era where you’re simply not going to get record companies backing every promising band with publicity and marketing, so you’d better be prepared to do it yourself. And Frontier Ruckus are doing just that – good luck to ’em.

Here’s a video from a few weeks ago of the band performing what to me was the highlight of their set, Adirondack Amish Holler:
   We love our families,
   We love our twilight trees,
   We love our memories,
   Salt pours out to the river.
   There on the swamp edge,
   Skies north of the mountains,
   My eyes pulse like fountains
   And salt pours out to the river.

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