Titus Andronicus is still a mostly unheard of band. They neither sell out arenas nor perform at any large summer festivals — but what they lack in recognition, they make up for in their well-defined identity. Their first album, “The Airing of Grievances” (2007), came onto the shelves with overwhelmingly positive reviews and brought a much-needed dose of energy to indie rock. Their sophomore attempt, “Monitor,” employs the same high-powered, fuzz-covered indie rock as their first with an even greater degree of success.
“Monitor” opens with “A More Perfect Union.” The song rumbles to life with a speech about war and bloodshed lifted directly from Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address from 1838. The speaker declares, “As a nation of free men, we must live through all time or die by suicide,” and chaos ensues. The song swiftly kicks into an exuberant pounding of drums and distorted guitars reminiscent of the Dropkick Murphys and Neutral Milk Hotel. Seconds later, the lead vocalist lets loose a tirade of scowling with The Killers-influenced vocals.
Fuzzed-out guitars, bass drums and Peter Stickles’ constant drunken wailing are, fittingly, the most prominent musical pieces of the lo-fi Titus Andronicus. For the most part, “Monitor” rocks with a unique Celtic/Americana mix.
Interestingly, the band’s New Jersey roots require a mention of Bruce Springsteen. Though hugely different in sound, Titus Andronicus apparently has some sort of affinity for the legendary rocker, as seen through some altered, yet borrowed lyrics such as “… tramps like us, baby we were born to die” in “A More Perfect Union,” and the occasional use of Springsteen-like “whoa-whoa, na-na” chants and even a Boss-channeled sax solo.
Still, most of the tracks are an awesome batch of high-energy, 100 mile-per-hour punk. “Titus Andronicus Forever” perhaps best exemplifies the band’s sound and lyrical content. The track grabs the listener’s throat and lands a few good punches while screaming things like “The enemy is everywhere.”
Unfortunately, the one misstep that “Monitor” suffers from stems from its energy. Though the rousing barroom romps are indeed well made, a more prolonged respite from the raucous would be greatly welcomed. The constant liveliness might appeal to some, but for the average listener, the few occasions of down-tempo serve only as a teaser for the possible diversity in sound that Titus Andronicus could perhaps achieve.
Despite the fact that no track does actually maintain any sort of respite from the speed and vitriol of the majority of the work, tracks like “A Pot in which to Piss,” “Four Score and Seven” and “To Old Friends and New” grant the listener an opportunity to mellow out for a moment. After being subject to 20 minutes of throbbing freneticism, the album’s fifth track, “A Pot in which to Piss” — in a timely fashion — opens with a mercifully serene organ coupled with a new, more tranquil Stickles, yet it then merges into an almost Franz Ferdinand-like syncopation.
Similarly, “Four Score and Seven” changes the tempo with a moaning cello, a somber pub piano and a high-squealing harmonica, but it loses itself again in the familiar punk-rock march. Most unique of these down-tempo efforts, “To Old Friends and New” equips the beaten, shoe-gazing vocals of a female guest, Cassie Ramone of the Vivian Girls (who, remarkably, sounds just a bit like Yael Naïm at times). This song actually manages to remain chill all the way throughout.
Many attributes of “Monitor” point to a distinct relation to the Civil War. The name of the album itself was inspired by the Civil War vessel USS Monitor, the first United States ironclad ship ever used in battle. In addition, the final track on the album takes its name from the first battle that the Monitor engaged in, the Battle of Hampton Roads. Several songs open or close with a reading of a document from the Civil War-era, such as a speech or a letter from figures like Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, and the band’s own lyrics attempt to mirror them in a manner.
In “Richard II or Extraordinary Popular Dimensions and The Madness Of Crowds (Responsible Hate Anthem),” Stickles evokes Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea: “Soon you’ll be burning the orphanages down/ watching ash scatter all over town/ …you’ll see blue trampling over grey…” However, the ambition may have been too great, for the Civil War tribute doesn’t entirely serve its purpose. This is not to say that the song is either distracting or just plain bad. Rather, “Richard II” comes off as a peculiar effort or an interesting side-thought with some slight connections to the majority of the album.
Despite the sometimes-confusing choices by the band, Titus Andronicus managed to craft a masterful album of Civil War-inspired punk rock opuses and vignettes. An hour-long experience of high energy indie rock should please anyone who misses Neutral Milk Hotel and wants something to contrast the mellowness that seems to characterize the indie scene as of late. And, of course, maybe one can learn some history in the meantime.