Frontier Ruckus – Mercury Lounge – December 5, 2013
Taking the stage at Mercury Lounge last night, Frontier Ruckus went from the “check, check, check” warm up straight into an eerie and wonderful melody featuring acoustic guitar, banjo and a saw without a pause or word. Yes, you read that right, a saw, and actually the guy playing it, Zachary Nichols, went from the saw to the trumpet to the melodica and back to the saw in a matter of a couple of verses. It was that kind of set where lyrics piled upon lyrics, ideas upon ideas and songs upon songs with barely a moment to digest or appreciate. Still, fronted by Matthew Milia, the Michigan quartet worked the details, a phrase here, a bleat of a horn there.
Frontier Ruckus’s sound is an engaging folk—guitar, banjo and harmonies—a swirl of Welch/Rawlings and the Avetts with a lyrical prowess that harkens Clem Snide’s Eef Barzelay or Stephen Malkmus. It’s Milia’s words that kept the audience hanging—this isn’t really sing-along music, but many in the crowd seemed to know every juxtaposed lyric by heart. This is a band that rhymes chirping with usurping, and East Lansing with entrancing without a stutter or hesitation. “Eyelashes” mixed great instrumental interplay with an evocative chorus of “your eyelashes are like needles.” “Dealerships” was an early set high-energy highlight, Milia spitting out word after word like a long Dylan diatribe, leaving the audience dizzy trying to keep up.
Mid-set, Milia broke a string and rushed offstage without comment to fix it, leaving the band in an unexpected lurch. But without a skip in the record, banjo player David Winston Jones waltzed over to Nichols and they jumped right into a haunting instrumental banjo-and-saw duet on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as if they had planned to all along. Later, a new song, described as taking place in the past and the future, about getting drunk at an enemy’s funeral contained a wonderful lyric about how the “theme song to this sitcom don’t have shit on our best episode.” It was here that Frontier Ruckus had their strength, songs like “Careening Catalog Immemorial,” about finding a stash of porn in a Taco Bell parking lot, Milia and Co. unearthing the poetic in the crass and mundane, the epic in the contemporary everyday, with tasty musical accompaniment and barely a moment left to breathe. —A. Stein