“They went onstage because they had no fucking choice.” Tony Wilson’s words about Joy Division in a recent documentary may also apply to Titus Andronicus, Glen Rock, N.J.’s favorite sons. Titus Andronicus are a band for which performance isn’t for fame and glamour; it's for the ability to get out the frustrations of the modern world that are keeping them down. The band’s sophomore album, The Monitor, is allegedly about the Civil War, but you won’t find dissertations on state’s rights or brothers fighting brothers here. This is an album about the enemy being all around us, and we are the enemy.
The off-the-rails and muscular “A More Perfect Union” starts the album like a punch in the chest, grinding for more than seven minutes in between samples of a speech and lead singer Patrick Stickles promising to be relentless and to be heard. Then he does just that, ranting like a mad man over the course of the album’s 10 tracks and 65 minutes, telling the tale (via oblique literary references) of a guy who moves from New Jersey up to Boston and doesn’t like what he finds. Throughout its run time, The Monitor is an expansion in scale for Titus Andronicus, as they routinely push their fury past the eight-minute mark, including the 14-minute closer, “The Battle Of Hampton Roads,” which may have the only bagpipe solo on an indie-rock album you’ll hear all year.
At the same time, this is still a small album, in that it’s primarily about the urge of one man (probably Stickles himself) to get himself out of the doldrums of suburban living. Stickles equates living in New Jersey to living in exile before, on “Theme From ‘Cheers,’” extolling the virtues of whiskey and hanging with your bros and singing about general disenfranchisement on “Richard II,” a song populated by people just waiting for something to believe in. Those downtrodden jolts have nothing on the sad bastardy of “A Pot In Which to Piss,” which finds Stickles shouting that, even though his life is covered in shit, he’s still alive. They’ve been described as emo-indie in the past, and The Monitor won’t shake that notion for the haters, but no emo band rocks this hard while being this righteously angry at the circumstances.
The fundamental difference between The Monitor and the group’s debut, The Airing of Grievances, and the reason why the former shines less bright than the latter, is in the attitude. On Airing, Titus Andronicus sounded as if the kids who were always serving detention in high school were let loose in a library in the middle of a Black Flag concert. You couldn’t expect them to keep that kind of energy level up, but too much of The Monitor drags under its drawn-out, we’re-totally-fucked-heft. But Titus Andronicus aren’t a band of shiny optimists. Maybe that makes them the perfect band for these times.
Virtually overnight, New Jersey's Titus Andronicus went from unknown lo-fi punk upstarts to indie darlings with the release of 2008's Airing of the Grievances. With their sophomore release the Monitor, the five-piece leaves the literary references and lo-fi sound of their debut behind in favor of a big, polished, Civil War-themed concept album--the titular "Monitor" a reference to the legendary ironclad warship. Featuring guest appearances by members of Ponytail, Vivian Girls and the Hold Steady, and multiple songs of 7 minutes or more, the Monitor is a rare instance of a band more than willing to expand upon their established sound and challenge listeners' expectations of what their music should be.