Matthew Milia, the front man of Frontier Ruckus, recently released his latest solo effort, Keego Harbor. Without a backing band, the album puts Milia’s vocals and songwriting front and center. There are elements of so many indie singer-songwriters of the last 20 years that I really love about this album. Milia’s training in college focused on poetry and creative writing, putting him in a class of lyricism that isn’t very common in the current contemporary music landscape. It’s notable that he features his lyrics on his website alongside his non-musical poetry.
While Frontier Ruckus has put out several well-received albums, it’s very interesting to hear Milia stretch his creativity and lyricism on this project. He is joined by his wife Lauren, who provides both vocals and plays steel guitar, giving the whole album a twang of country vibe. While the Midwestern melancholy lends easy comparisons to Bon Iver, Milia also reminds me a lot of Brendan Benson, the co-founder of The Raconteurs. They’re both known more for their work in bands but have put out several solo albums.
The backing instruments on the album are great, providing an easy framework for Milia to slip his complex lyrical observations into the songs, always delivered in his honeyed mellow voice. Lyrically there’s also a hint of Father John Misty (one of my favorite indie artists right now) with a lot less cynicism. Music obviously isn’t always about lyrics, but a good lyricist like Milia provides more depth and nuance than the latest radio single I’ve had to listen to five hundred times this week. It’s the lyrics, the quiet observations, that I want to revisit.
The pacing of the album is also really good – it’s melancholic Americana but just when it gets a little too soporific he turns around and puts a track like “Autumn America” on. The snare drum picks up, the keys play a little faster – it doesn’t change the overall narrative of the album but it picks up the pace just when it might start to drag. Really, “Autumn America” is a standout track on the album. It’s followed up by “Haven’t Heard You Laugh in a Long Time” which is probably the closest that Milia gets to Brendan Benson. Of course both of them are doing the kind of music that was far more common in the 90s and early 00s but has waned over time.
There are certain albums that fit certain aesthetics. Milia has crafted a great album for the period on the calendar where the summer slips into fall, when the sun goes down a little earlier, the leaves change colors. It’s also the kind of album for sitting on the porch sweating through a hot summer day. The music is slow and meditative without ever dragging too much. But ultimately it’s all a background for Milia’s really exceptional lyricism. Every song is like one of his poems, stretched out and set to music. There just aren’t many songwriters right now who do this kind of sharp, poignant writing.
Check out Keego Harbor on Spotify: