Thursday, January 31, 2013

Frontier Ruckus

Last week, I alluded to the potential for several reviews in the Super Review format, but after listening through the compelling double album concept record, Eternity of Dimming, by the Detroit folk-rock and Americana quartet Frontier Ruckus, I decided the collection required more than just a cursory analysis.

In order to properly take-in the delightfully intricate detail frontman Matthew Milia shoehorns into every track, I recommend heading over to the band's lyrical songbook and following along – word-for-word – as Milia chronicles the nuances of his own upbringing.

The 20-song effort is conceptual in the same way that The Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness or Weezer's (NMT) Pinkerton are, in that there are broad themes and a few specific references that span the album. But is not an account of characters or a plot-driven series of events like you might find in Green Day's (NMT) American Idiot, The Arcade Fire's The Suburbs (NMT) or Southeast Engine's From the Forest to the Sea (NMT). Still, there's no mistaking the excitement inherent to exploring a piece of music that is consciously assembled to fit together collectively, with the track order having significance and some ultimate voice and purpose being conveyed by the material. I still remember my nervous energy rushing up the street to the record store to purchase Mellon Collie the day it was released in 1995 to discover what Billy Corgan envisioned – and executed – as the group's masterpiece. In fact, those kinds of hallmark experiences of youth and adolescence is precisely what Milia's attempting to communicate here.

Frontier Ruckus
New Release: Eternity of Dimming
Release Date: January 29, 2013
Record Label: Ramseur Records
Sounds Like: Great Lakes Myth Society, Okkervil River (NMT), Southeast Engine (NMT)
Location: Detroit, Mich.

Somewhere between the group's current base in Detroit, the prototypical suburban enclave of Sylvan Manor near Valparaiso, Ind., and summer vacation destinations in New England is the rotating stage where Milia recounts the transition from the enduring, but challenging summertime of youth and the shifting boundaries of adolescence. The events and details become increasingly connected as the tracks unwind, all built atop the folk and roots-based Americana that the Great Lakes Myth Society's Timothy Monger (NMT) once coined as "northern rock," a counterpart to the boisterous and bluesy southern rock sub-genre. Here you'll here banjos, fiddles, organs and mandolins, but is hard to label as country.

Beginning with the opener "Everlashes" through the closing "Careening Catalog Immemorial," Milia is a lyricist on par with Okkervil River's Will Shelf and Colin Meloy of The Decemberists (NMT, NMT), but perhaps with even greater focus on narrative complexity than either. Although his nasally voice – somewhere in between Fountains of Wayne's (NMT) Chris Collingwood and The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne – requires some adjustment period, there's no suspicion that he needed to fabricate any of the fabulously intricate details, ranging from the opener's description of "a pine tree straighter applicator, bristling and whistling through the needles" to the ending's account of the "liquid wicked warping of an ambling ambulance’s distancing pitch," no adjective or flourish is spared to paint the most precise imagery possible. It's all very real, and it's all very personal to him.

Nowhere is this lyrical abundance more apparent on the collection's first half apex, "Granduncles of Saint Lawrence County." Consider the descriptive depth of the track's second stanza:

Where the handicap tourist-trap putt-putt courses
And trailers patched with corrugated scrap metal and divorces stand
Well, I got a granduncle and he lives inland
Where the pure manure summer vapors get fanned
By electric fence whir and a wave of the hand
Of the Amish infants standing barefoot in the sand
While the gas-station kids hang out idle and bland at the Subway

The surrealism contained in the passage – matched by angular acoustic guitar lines, a plucky banjo and wafting organ streams, all supplied by Milia and multi-instrumentalist David Jones, while bassist Zachary Nichols and drummer Ryan Etzcom provide a sturdy foundation – almost seems too nuanced to correspond with any factor of modern life, but actually represents the reality of daily life to those not painting with broad brushes.

Elsewhere, Milia takes advantage of the space afforded by the double album, concept format to link tracks together, such as the first half's "Bike Trail" and "I Met Rebecca" couplet. The first leg – "Bike Trail" explores the sticky and devolutionary treks of summer, where everything is squirming and drooping from the heat – a theme he threads throughout the collection, to which your blogger can relate to as a northerner who battled through many summers without air conditioning, the inverse of what's experienced by southerners as they confront harsh winters. (Somewhere, there's an implicit, hidden commentary of how the natural environment we're exposed to growing up has profound influence in shaping our perceptions of comfort and resilience).

Anyways, back to the music: the same instrumental constitution seamlessly transitions into "I Met Rebecca,"brilliantly underscoring how the landscape portrait of the slowly writing summer becomes more narrowly focused into a profile of a summer romance, replete with the neighborhood swimming hole setting.

On the album's second segment, a similar pairing unites what functionally serves as the entire effort's centerpiece – the tour de force of "In Protection of Sylvan Manor" and suburban malaise epic "Dealerships." In the former, Milia does battle with the forces of ambivalence and lethargy ("Does your dad fall asleep with the remote in his hand? / Does a digital beep promote gentle reprimand to share all your love?"), and goes so far to issue his own battle cry at the number's zenith:

Well, no two-bit piece of shit interloper
Is gonna touch my world or molest my hope or
My kingdom that lingers in each drawer I open
When I open it up I’ll be groping at what is for damn sure
In the dimming of Sylvan Manor   

Few lyricists of his era are so willing to issue as a personal and explicit declaration of willful identity. The credo is even more striking when contrasted with the track's counterpart, "Dealerships." Milia's deliberate strikes of descending acoustic guitar scales from "In Protection..." cultivate an urgency that materializes in the latter, the most grandiose instrumental output on the record, sounding almost triumphant in relation to the more restrained pace elsewhere. Here, although most of the remnants of suburbia were initially fabricated and processed in department stores , they ultimately became robust and authentic to those who were there. The passage of what's left to a mother after a lifetime living where "dealerships garishly light up the parish where we wore Catholic uniforms from K to 8" is nearly heart rending:

The shrink-wrapped cosmetics and cardboard aesthetics of department store picture frame inserts that my mother keeps under a sink in a cupboard with her high school diploma and it hurts to try
to keep all our treasures intact for forever in fact they are cluttered and muttering sighs;
The pipes froze and ruptured and so now her cupboard is full of possessions that she can’t keep dry

While Milia – or his titular character that appears here – knows that although what's left is frayed, becomes uglier the longer you look and had little substance to begin with, it still nonetheless belongs to them:

I’ll meet you out where the outlet malls turn to black holes
I’ll greet you cradling obsolete remote controls
To television sets in entertainment cabinets
From lost living rooms of trampled carpets
Of VHS sun-bleached cassettes and teenage trophies of plastic soccer nets
And the clip art signs are cartoonish on diners
Which are actually grimmer than hell in the night
And a bright CVS might make me obsess
But at least I have found what is mine in the light

And it feels so pure
Feels so singular
Still and sure
That’s the thing you were
Meant to see when you
Went through the
Dimming world

Of course, there's much more here that deserves more attention, which I'll provide briefly in the track-by-track rundown below, but – for now – spend some time with Eternity of Dimming, in order, and let the grand lyrical constructions of Milia and his instrumental collaborators deliver a continually refreshing cavalcade of imagery without illusion.
Come for: "Black Holes" (well-paced Americana rock; the most accessible on the record)
Stay for: "Bike Trail" / "I Met Rebecca" (the juxtaposition of surrealism and narrative earns the concept record achievement badge)
You'll be surprised by: "In Protection of Sylvan Manor" / "Dealerships" (these are the types of tracks that define a career)
Solid efforts: "Eyelashes" (fantastic imagery, gentle start to a complex collection); "Thermostat" (touches of rockabilly with Buddy Holly/Roy Orbison phrasing by Milia ["glass in your eye; oh, my!"]); "Junk-Drawer Sorrow" (even the thaw of spring can't drag with it our stubborn and lingering habits and decisions); "The Black-Ice World" (slow and frigid, like its subject matter); "I Buried You So Deep" (haunting, but less sinister than Okkervil River's "Westfall" or Colin Meloy's unending steam of burial accounts; at times, almost charming instrumental backing); "Granduncles of St. Lawrence County" (among the record's best, both in musicality and lyricism, with my favorite single lyric on the album: "Lunch meat on the kitchen counter / Mary’s counting bug bites on a sunburned shoulder");  "Eternity of Dimming" (sets the stage for the suburban exegesis on "Dealerships;" playful organ part in the background is a nice touch to lighten the mood, which is at its darkest and heaviest here); "If the Sun Collapse" (bluegrassy vibe is a good backdrop for the fleeting moments of both a sunny day and a romance with an expiration date); "Surgery" (the Fender Rhodes piano sound has a distinctly 70s vibe unique on this record, a nice change of pace); "In the Summer" (the piano focus continues here, complimenting the loping lull of summer suggested by the lyrics); "Open It Up" (the album's longest track at 7:52; extends many of the themes explored earlier; nice banjo + Hammond organ blend as the song builds; extra credit for use of the word "Phantasmagoria"); "Careening Catalog Immemorial" (a nice bookend with paired with "Eyelashes;" more references to vacationing in New England) 
Meh: "Birthday Girl" (I like this in the context of the concept record, and has more fantastic wordsmithing, but wouldn't be as fond of it as a stand-alone number); "Funeral Family Flowers" (again, not something I'd care for on its own, but short little numbers like this make sense on a concept album; Milia's nasal pitch gets the better of him a bit, though);
Skip to next track: "Nightmares of Space" (a little too morose for their sound, nor do I see how it fits into the concept; still, only one throw-away out of 20 tracks is not a bad success rate)

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