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Feeling Warm Inside The Swarms Of Hell: Rediscovering Michigan With Frontier Ruckus

Posted on 20 December 2010 by Mylynda Guthrie

- by Amber Valentine

I was made to love Frontier Ruckus. I didn’t know it and neither did the band but if there was one group that was tailor made to appeal to my better nature, it was Frontier Ruckus.

I stumbled across them earlier this year, in a press release, and took a chance on downloading their sophomore cd, Deadmalls & Nightfalls. It struck me right away how special the album was and within days, I found myself gushing about it’s beauty to all of my friends, insisting they listen to the disc by using the tag line “It’s like a Black Sheep Boy era Okkervil River that’s even more heavily influenced by Neutral Milk Hotel but with a Ben Kweller sort of twist to the vocals.” Thankfully, as my social circle consists mostly of indie kids like myself, these comparisons were met with nods of recognition and high expectations. Personally, it makes me nervous to hear anything compared to my beloved Okkervil River and the near-holy Neutral Milk Hotel, so comparing anyone to these two bands myself obviously means serious business. Few bands are as near and dear to my heart as Will Sheff’s Austin based Okkervil River and Jeff Mangum’s thoroughly affecting Neutral Milk Hotel but these Frontier Ruckus kids more than live up to the lofty goals they’ve set for themselves by drawing from these groups as influence.

From my first listen, I was taken with lyricist Matthew Milia’s lyrics. Wordy, tricky, and requiring multiple listens to decode thoroughly, Milia makes such indie rock wordsmiths as Sheff and Meloy proud with his poeticisms. It’s something that’s hard to ignore from the opening lines of “Nerves of the Nightmind”, a song that includes such enchanting words as “Getting to know you lash by dark lash, the beds where you sleep and the floors where you crash” and “The dampness of sweat is the sweetest recording”. As a backdrop to these seductive lines, wrought with longing and moodiness, are David Jones’ masterful banjo and an ensnaring web of horns and keyboards, the wonderful production of which never overpowers which is no small feat, considering how many elements are at play on “Nerves of the Nightmind”.

The album seamlessly works together as one cohesive work of art, each song transitioning so perfectly to the next that, while the twelve tracks of Deadmalls & Nightfalls do work as stand alone gems, it seems a shame to listen to “Springterror” without listening to “Ringbearer” and while “Silverfishes”, with it’s searing bitterness and dark overtones, sounds beautiful on it’s own, listen to it after the aforementioned “Ringbearer” and it’s charm is magnified infinitely.

Milia sings songs that are evocative of twilight in autumn. There’s an inherint sadness to Deadmalls & Nightfalls, no doubt due in part to Milia’s mournful croon and lyrics like “If I knew which part of me was wax, I would try to truncate it.” What exactly it was about Frontier Ruckus’ album that appealed to me so, however, I couldn’t put my finger on. That is, until I spent some time living with it. When I got to know Deadmalls & Nightfalls better, that was when I really fell in love.

Frontier Ruckus formed in Orion Township, Michigan. For reference, I grew up approximately forty two minutes from Orion, according to Google maps, deep in the suburbs surrounding Detroit so when Matt Milia sings “I shot down Telegraph with a hot laugh as we cruised through through the sinews” (“Silverfishes”), not only do I know what road he’s talking about but I know the exact feeling of flying down Telegraph, late at night, en route to a party somewhere near Detroit, the black of night tinged with neon lights and the road marred with gas stations and Michigan Lefts. The references sneak up on you, permeating the songs with their presence but never going so far as to make their presence glaringly obvious. This fact makes certain that Deadmalls & Nightfalls has an appeal that’s across the board and I’ve got friends in such far reaching corners of the country as New Hampshire and Seattle that cherish Frontier Ruckus’s masterpiece as much as I do. What I doubt, however, is that this album means as much to them as it does to me.

Moving back to Michigan, to me, was like admitting defeat. I had worked very hard for very many years to get out of the state, which was marred with the bad memories and worse experiences of my youth. Coming back was a distinct step backwards so far as I was concerned and every day spent in my homestate was a reminder that I’d failed at being a self-sufficient writer. I was just one of the countless casualties of living in the technological age but the fact that I wasn’t alone in my unemployment didn’t make things any easier, nor did my return to my homestate. My plan was to spend a few months in Michigan, to get my bearings straight and find another writing job. It was a longer process than I’d initially thought and it was depressing to find myself living in the same area I spent my formative years, identical to how I remembered it but so different at the same time. The record store I used to frequent? It was now a Jimmy John’s. The book stores and coffee shops and parks had all been knocked down and paved over, to make way for Barnes and Nobles, Starbucks, and strip malls. The jarring changes were just as heartbreaking to me as the fact that, despite these differences, these suburbs were still the same suburbs I loathed in middle school. And here I was, walking their streets once more, more than ten years after I first decided that after I completed my education, I was ditching the mitten for Chicago. It was in the midst of this dull depression about the sad state of my locale that Deadmalls & Nightfalls came into my life. And it was perfect.

Not only does Deadmalls & Nightfalls perfectly encapsulate the grey ache that mars the dull landscape of Detroit, but it also exposes the beauty that can be found in mid-Michigan, from “Sylvan Lake and in between, perpetually like Halloween” to “the billboard dentist from White Lake to East Lansing”. I might have expected Frontier Ruckus to soundtrack my sadness when I first discovered them but what I didn’t expect was for them to help me fall in love with Michigan for the first time. Despite the vast majority of my 26 years having been spent with the great lakes and college towns of Michigan as the backdrop to my existence, I’d never felt anything but disdain for my homestate. Soon, however, I found myself putting down roots in Ann Arbor, falling in love with the streets I’d walked down hundreds of times before but never truly taken in, all the while experiencing the same slew of emotions that Milia expresses so deftly on Deadmalls & Nightfalls. My emotional connection to the album was only magnified by the fact that I found myself frequenting Pontiac, the “heart of darkness” that Milia sings about on “Pontiac, The Nightbrink” and riding the same highways daily that are described during accounts of Milia’s trips to Ontario and Chicago.

Pontiac, the Nightbrink

I’ve been living with Deadmalls & Nightfalls for the greater part of six months now and, just like how Milia himself is desperately clamoring to get to know the object of his intrigue in “Nerves of the Nightmind”, the more I discover about the album, the more it means to me. With Deadmalls & Nightfalls, Milia has made a Salinger-esque ode to his homestate, the audible equivalent of “To Esme; With Love and Squalor”. Deadmalls & Nightfalls is just as much a love letter to Michigan and it’s residents as it is a man reminiscing about the sadness that he can’t just shake while he’s in his homestate and from start to finish, with Deadmalls & Nightfalls, Frontier Ruckus has created the ubiquitous soundtrack for time spent in the Great Lakes state.

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