Monday, March 8, 2010
Album: The Monitor
Rating: ******** (8/10)
In 2008, Titus Andronicus came out of New Jersey to help redefine what hardcore punk can be. With innovations only surpassed by Matador's Fucked Up, the band's debut LP The Airing of Grievances assembled a rough set of epic punk rants about New Jersey, new adulthood, literature and art. It was an album of cutting but impatient introspection, full of the wonder and fear and anger that comes with discovering the world as it is.
On the The Monitor, the band wanders even further down their self-paved road. The album's connecting thread is a running Civil War theme. From the beginning of the band's career, it's been clear that frontman Patrick Stickles is a man with deep sense of what's right and a painful confusion about how to find and stand by that in a fucked up world. The album's Civil War setting is not so much about history as it is about showing the world today as seen by this gangly, bearded young madman.
From the first second on, The Monitor is in emotional overdrive. Not just Stickles but the band as a whole has put themselves on the line even more than before. Every note is the sound of someone playing their heart out. There are some bands who just like making music, some who do it out of insatiable curiosity or because it's the only thing they know how to do, and then there are those who have to, because their emotional and spiritual burdens demand that release, because without it, they would just shrivel up and die. Titus Andronicus are a band with a purpose and drive that seems larger than themselves, and this is what makes them such a memorable and important group.
So what to make of The Monitor? At times it seems a little much. Only two tracks of ten clock in under five minutes, while half of the album's songs cross the seven minute mark. The unending gushing of raw emotion, the epic songs, it's dense and heavy and hard to digest. But I don't think this band know how to do it any other way. And each song, though riddled with changes in tempo and style, makes a distinct statement, a distinct piece of the album's ultimate picture.
Musically, the band's horizons have continued to expand. Though the raging, anthemic qualities of the songs show a deep loyalty to the original punk movement, the band incorporates a wealth of styles, even including some New Orleans jazz saxophone, a sole bluegrass fiddle and a few hints of straight-out country twang. The disparate styles and instrumentation evidence the band's commitment to a vision beyond any sonic aesthetic. Even still, some of these attempts to branch out, though undoubtedly genuine, don't quite work. At times, the band seems a little off their mark, their identity uncertain. The changes are just too abrupt and short-lived to mesh with our sense of what this band is all about.
Still, it's a courageous and meaningful effort. The piano driven "To Old Friends and New" expands the band's vocal range a good octave or so upward and provides the closest thing the album has to an emotional climax, with an uplifting, conciliatory refrain. However, for all the warm, thoughtful dimensions of the album, it also keeps rocking, with rousing shout-along choruses and quick two-by-two beats. The rowdy "Titus Andronicus Forever" is already a live favorite but nearly every song has at least sections with similar high-speed energy.
There is no punk band on earth that sounds like Titus Andronicus. Their long-winded rants, punctuated with references to history, art and literature - as well as to other of their own songs - may sound off-putting by description, but what keeps the band from ruining themselves with self-indulgence is the absolute sincerity they put into everything they do. If they border on obtuse, it's only because their abilities haven't quite caught up with their need to express. But we can all understand the self-doubt and the disillusionment, the yearning for good and the undying hope Titus Andronicus represent. They might not always succeed, but thank god they are trying.