Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Titus Andronicus - The Monitor

What do you get when you mix the sound and spirit of punk rock, the voice of Conor Oberst, and a fascination with the U.S. Civil War? Titus Andronicus’s new record of course. The group’s sprawling, hour long, semi-concept album, The Monitor, dropped about a year ago to rave reviews, and sounded intriguing enough to download. On first play I'm introduced with a speech by Abraham Lincoln, which promptly leads in to a fast-paced punk anthem where Patrick Stickles quiveringly sings of his love/hate relationship with New Jersey. It was promising and exciting initially, but after its first verse as Sickles plays a pedestrian guitar solo for the better part of a minute, the charm begins to dissipate -- and by the time this simple little track plateaus the seven minute mark I’ve completely lost interest. The second song, “Titus Andronicus Forever,” is much shorter but no less musically derivative with its simple C, F, G power chord variation, as the band sings in anthem, "the enemy is everywhere!" After multiple listens I haven't found much of anything to latch on to. Every song follows in similar formation; distorted I IV V or I vi IV V chord progressions (sometimes capoed for tonal variation) that stay long past their welcome (the last song, “The Battle of Hampton Roads” clocks in at a whopping fourteen minutes). Stickles focuses mostly on his down and out ways -- nights filled with shitty beer and shittier pubs. The songs are jumbled up with random civil war quotes, references and recordings, apparently giving the band its distinct originality.

The way in which one would most likely enjoy Titus Andronicus is by commiserating with the lovable loser of a character Stickles is. He has a unique voice, and his lyrics are filled with great literary detail on personal failures and triumphs and relationship struggles. But how many lovable losers populate the musical landscape already with similar stories? Stickles and Co.’s influences are obvious and dear to me, but I can go back and listen to those influences (The Replacements, Hold Steady) for my fix of punk inspired rock’n’roll by the drunk and the lonely. I bet Titus Andronicus puts on a great live show, their energy and confidence is apparent and there are some solid hooks on The Monitor, but the civil war concept isn’t enough to save the album from its bloated run time and simple song structures.

(The video version of “A More Perfect Union” is chopped in half length-wise, which makes the song twice as good as far as I’m concerned.)

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