Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Wonderful Ruckus of Music and Lyrics

Late summer. The air hangs close with humidity, the cicadas riot in the trees and the world seems overgrown from some sort of mad crush of production before fall arrives. A perfect time to talk about Frontier Ruckus. With songs that are thick with harmony, a full, backwoods acoustic folk sound and crammed full of lyrical poetry, this indie folk band from Michigan provides a bounty of sound and imagery that seems to revel in the physical and natural world while simultaneously worrying about the inevitable changes of season, spirit and time.
The album in question here is The Orion Songbook released in 2008 which you can pick up over at Quite Scientific Records. There is also an extended version with new songs an additional EP available on vinyl over at Lower Peninsula Records and there are lots of other songs for the listening over at their MySpacey Place.
I will say right off, that had I stumbled on FR last year, they would have definitely been on the list of albums from 2008 to pick up. That said, these guys are either a "like 'em or leave 'em" band for most I imagine and that has much to do with front man Matthew Milia who also writes all the songs on this album.
Let's start with the lyrics (which makes me wish we had a poet here in The Room to help with the analysis). Milia's songs, while not all the same by any stretch, are primarily a free form set of images on a theme. Some songs do have verse and chorus, but many are much more like blank verse starting with an image and pushing that forward with smart connections and related imagery. I don't think it is unfair to suggest you may think of Dylan when listening to the lyrics here (no, Dylan fans, I am not saying he is Dylan, but the form and approach is similar).
Themes are focused on love and relationships, growing up and family, religion and (to my delight) these are often overlaid with a good deal of Michigan imagery and references. As I have suggested, Milia seems very focused on the physical and natural and there is a whole lot of animals, bodies, fluids, love, plants, smell, decay, death and the everyday physicality of life (perhaps Whitman is the better reference here than Dylan?).
Now the music needs some discussion, because I imagine this will have more to do with your reaction to them. First, Milia has a very warbley, tenor voice and you gotta dig that if you are going to like this album--think Colin Meloy from The Decemberists or even Pat McDonald from Timbuk3 at times. Of course, most songs also enjoy the harmonies of Anna Burch which are key to the music (and their voices together are what made me think of Timbuk3). The two together have a wonderful sound and they sing with such sincerity it is hard not to get caught up in their singing.
Milia also plays some wonderful guitar on this album. His musical partner in crime here is David Jones who plays banjo throughout the album, providing both a steady rhythm to many tunes, and some nice fills and leads, particularly on the upbeat tunes. There are a variety of instrumentations here with harmonica, dobro, piano and trumpet added in, but we cannot finish this post without discussing the saw. Yes, the saw.
I don't think that I have another album where the singing-saw plays such a role (or any for that matter). Now not to pick on Zach Nichols who plays the saw, but it is a bit overdone here. There are songs where it is understated and add a haunting texture to the song, but then there are others where it seems like more novelty than anything and I would have preferred another instrument. But this is a small complaint in the end compared with the overall strength of this album.
Okay, so I have already told you where to go get the album, so let's check out a couple tunes. As usual with discs I really enjoy, choices are difficult. I probably could have given you a couple others to convey the full range, but here are two that I really like both musically and lyrically.
And as an added bonus, here is one more of those great wandering around Michigan videos that made me want to hear more of this Ruckus. This also happens to be one of my favorite tunes on the album.

1 comment:

M said...

Lots of singing saws at the annual NYC Musical Saw Festival - - Zach Nichols might be interested.