Echolocation #17: Darkening the Brightness

at first it seems like utterly normal folk-rock, but then frontier ruckus’s “strangeness never ceases.”


Frontier Ruckus, “Mona and Emmy,” Live at Paste Magazine

Frontier Ruckus‘s best song, “Mona and Emmy,” is not on the group’s new album, The Orion Songbook, though there are many good songs on that release. There is, however, a wonderful version of “Mona and Emmy” recorded for Live at Paste Magazine.

“Mona and Emmy” is a parable, but about what? At the Paste Magazine performance, lead singer Matthew Milla says it’s a “childhood love kind of song about this girl who I was childhoodly in love with.” He explains that the girl who he loved was from an evangelical family. When baptized by her father, she was surrounded by a hoard of black flies, which her father took to be a bad omen.

But that seems to only be partly what the song is about. It’s a kind of triangle love story, perhaps, between the singer, Mona, and Emmy. Or is it simply a moment poised between memory and the future, between a childhood love and an adult love? The song is certainly about sins committed and desires unquenchable, pranks gone awry and restlessness wrested into dreams, lost opportunities lost for good, and the renewal of spirit in remembering what’s gone and what still remains.

Most of all, it’s about the feeling of a summer night in a nameless small American town on the edge of the Interstate.

As the story unfolds, the singer is getting off work at the local market, where he works “nine to five around the hiss of the ice box compartment.” He and Mona, who has been buying milk and honey, seek to set the town on fire, but instead there’s just stillness, a wonderful kind of delicious American night stillness. Stirring the weeping willows like a gentle wind, the song’s chords float by, quintessential old-timey-folk-music-by-way-of-Neil-Young chords, as David Jones’s banjo clatters past like a train and trumpet player Zachary Nichols puffs a melody just behind. Anna Burch plays the role of Mona, the singer’s “only friend,” and together they share the memory of Emmy and her baptism and a second memory of the singer jokingly plunging Emmy’s head underwater while swimming one night, causing Emmy’s father to cry.

Wandering through the “neighborhoods from Mona’s house to the interstate,” the singer wants to flee “for railroad tracks in other towns,” but at the same time longs “to hold to something longer, something meaner, something stronger.” He urges Mona to depart with him, setting out on the Interstate to the promised land, but Mona points out that the Interstate dead ends, and together they ask: “Is the promised land just a funny way to say the strangeness never ceases?” At song’s end, Mona and the singer grasp at the memory of Emmy’s religious childhood: “‘Cause Emmy, you have baptized me to pieces.”

With every listen, the story keeps unfolding in a new ways. In fragments, the mystery of the song only expands into the starry sky. And as the singers’ voices blend and separate, as the banjo plucks into and out of the old chords, as the snare drum skip along and snap back, as the trumpet rises and falls on the simple chords, one discovers again—surely, sadly, thankfully, and quite miraculously—that the “strangeness never ceases.”

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