Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Titus Andronicus

One rarely ever equivocates civil war history with punk rock. The former is often perceived as staid, dense and clouded in mythology, while the later is brash, sharp and blunt. And yet the Glen Rock, New Jersey-based quintet Titus Andronicus has charged itself with the mission of uniting the two in its sophomore effort, The Monitor.

Lead singer and songwriter Patrick Stickles is apparently quite the Civil War buff and has dedicated his craft in this 10-track affair to utilizing traces of history from that bloody and tragic period to metamorphosize his own personal narrative to a punk foundation primarily forged by American-based punks like The Replacements and Hüsker Dü.

Of course, coming from New Jersey and unleashing any form of rock within a klick (how bout that reference for military terminology) of Thunder Road must pay homage to the Oracle at Asbury Park. Stickles and his mates get this work underway quickly in the album opener, "A More Perfect Union." While he he first intones our 16th President by quoting his address to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, IL, in January, 1838, he quickly moves on to his search for "a new New Jersey, because tramps like us, baby, we were born to die." Getting the Boss accolades out of the way early is wise so his lyrics can guide us ably, if joltingly, between Springsteen's Jersey and Lincoln's troops at Gettysburg not all that far way from the Garden State. Complete with references to Jeff Davis and the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Stickles does his due diligence transporting us to the scene and rallying up our patriotic ardor. Drummer Eric Harm might as well be fronting the 20th Maine up Little Round Top as the track marches to its apex.

The use of historic quotes as tablesettings are pervasive throughout the recording, which also includes interludes from Uncle Walt's "Vigil Strange," Jefferson Davis himself, and Lincoln in his First Inaugural and his letter to Mary Todd of January, 23, 1841, where he pronounces himself "the most miserable man living." But more poignant to Titus Adronicus' work is their inclusion of William Lloyd Garrison's "To The Public" in inaugural edition of The Liberator, January 1831, where Garrison proclaims his mission as follows:

I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to speak, or think, or write with moderation. I am in earnest. I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard.

Such a declaration inhabits the very credo of punk rock, and its presence here is the perfect lead-in for the second track, "Titus Andronicus Forever" (which follows its even more eponymous predecessor on the band's debut, The Airing of Grievances). Stickles gets the most out of his lyrics here, with the track's musical chaos serving as the backdrop for his warnings that "the enemy is everywhere!" At all of 1 minute and 55 seconds, the song must not include any largess to diminish the urgency of its message, and it succeeds in doing so here – along with its reprisal seven tracks later in "...And Ever."

A couple other tracks are especially noteworthy. Nearly all of them – aside from the two discussed in the preceding paragraph – run past the punk-approved track time of no more than 3 minutes, and grand shifts in several of them indicate they were likely the result of mergers between two theretofore separate numbers. The most interesting of these contrasts can be found in "A Pot in Which to Piss." While the first five minutes gradually builds from a slow and melodic intro, the second aspect introduces a rollicking piano part by pianist/guitarist David Robbins. Here is where the group reaches out its musical direction the most towards The Boss and his colleagues in an effort that wouldn't sound out of place on The River. It's a great 3 and a half minutes of rock gospel.

Additionally, the duet between Stickles and Cassie Ramone of the Vivian Girls on "To Old Friends and New" is a nice change of pace ballad, and although album closer "The Battle of Hampton Roads" clocks in at a whopping 14:02, it includes all the fare one would expect in such an opus, including a minute-and-a-half guitar solo, horns and bagpipes. Here Stickles references the legendary battle between the world's first ironclad warships – of which the Union's ship provides the title for the record – and uses the conflict to to illuminate the more modern battle that wages in culture today and in his life in particular. Given its length and morose content matter – which is most similar to the Arcade Fire's "Antichrist Television Blues" – it might not make the most compelling live performance, but within the confines of studio and microphone, the track can stretch out and serve the function its author intended.

Come for: "A More Perfect Union"
Stay for: "Titus Andronicus Forever" / "...And Ever"
You'll be surprised by: "To Old Friends and New

P.S. The group and Cassie Ramone recently took a fun turn on the Weezer classic (yikes, does that make me feel old) "Undone [the Sweater Song]." Check it out here.

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