Titus Andronicus Launches “The Monitor” in San Francisco
April 13, 2010 · Print This Article
“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.”
The above declaration – from the inaugural version of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator – is one of several Civil War-era quotes introducing tracks from The Monitor, the sprawling sophomore effort by budding New Jersey warrior poets Titus Andronicus.
It might as well be a mantra for the way the band brews its particular cup of coffee: strong, ink-black, and most definitely guaranteed to wake you the f— up.
Coming on the heels of remarkable debut LP The Airing of Grievances, The Monitor shows off plenty of growth for the band, if not necessarily a lot of maturity. Grievances acted as frontman/songwriter Patrick Stickles’ introductory screed on his home state and American Life In General, circa 2008. Despite a quasi-concept tying Stickles’ latest round of verbose rants to the aforementioned Civil War – the title is a reference to the first ironclad warship commissioned by the U.S. Navy in 1862 – The Monitor reveals itself to be much the same as its predecessor, peppered as it is with musical and lyrical references to the Garden State, and pithy kiss-offs like “You ain’t never been no virgin, kid, you were f—ed from the start.” It also just happens to be more focused, better produced, and perhaps even more improbably exhilarating to listen to.
While comparisons to The Boss and The Hold Steady have flowed like cheap wine between the pages of the alternative rags, neither of those acts can boast a release that compares to the ambition and sheer audacity on display from this clan of Glen Rock desperadoes; truly, this is a record with big brass ones. Springsteen, great as he is, has never made his listeners want to scream the words “you will always be a loser” at the top of their lungs to an unabashedly poppy melody slashed through with grimy guitar sludge. Listening to The Monitor, Titus Andronicus will manage to make you do just that. Such a feat is a rare find, especially in a band so young.
On tour to support the new record, Titus took a recent Sunday to stop in at San Francisco’s Slim’s for a raucous headlining set. The band’s ascension has been swift by indie rock standards; a mere year-and-a-half ago, they were playing tavern back rooms on the virtually anonymous Troubleman Unlimited label. Now they are signed to powerhouse XL Records – the label responsible for Radiohead, Sigur Ros, and MIA – and have graduated to one of the most storied independent venues in the city, on a tour that features them sharing a stage with heavyweights like Vampire Weekend and Pavement. In spite of all that growth, the band still maintains an endearingly DIY ethic, with band members handling all the merch sales, and hitting up the audience every evening for a floor to sleep on.
Almost non-stop touring has made Titus more cohesive, confident, and potent in the time since I first saw them in ‘08. They have trimmed their membership to five very talented musicians: bassist Ian Graetzer, guitarist/violinist Amy Klein, keyboardist David Robbins, drummer Eric Harm, and Stickles.
Stickles – sporting a beard length that would make any Union general proud – is still the band’s spokesman and most charismatic presence, though on this night he was rivaled for onstage theatrics by Klein, a recent addition to the lineup. Far from the rock band cliché of the “coolly aloof chick bassist”, Klein’s guitar and electric violin work revealed her as the lynchpin behind several key innovations in the band’s sound on The Monitor. Her gleeful grin as she dug into the album’s hooks lent the band a unique new energy missing from prior incarnations, and provided a much-needed counterpoint to Stickles’ sometimes overbearing persona.
That’s not to say, however, that the night failed to provide any classic Stickles moments; midway through the 80-minute set, Stickles launched into a quasi-confessional about his struggles with emotional instability, which had apparently been responsible for a meltdown during the band’s soundcheck earlier in the day. During the speech, Stickles apologized to the Slim’s staff, appealed to the audience to help him remember the name of his own meds, and gave a shout-out to a Jersey friend in the audience, whom he half-jokingly dubbed “a soothing balm on my troubled soul.”
Meanwhile, the band provided a hefty and powerful collection of its most high-energy material, splitting the difference about evenly between the two records. Though the band’s studio work does a fine job of capturing their feral approach to noisemaking, it’s still no substitute for seeing them do their thing live. The new material in particular thrived in the live setting, with tunes like “No Future Part 3: Escape from No Future”, “Richard II”, and “The Battle of Hampton Roads” getting a sound epic enough to match the scope of their emotional catharsis. While Stickles’ caterwaul gleefully warbled in and out of key, the Civil War theme was augmented by Klein, who threw in guitar-based versions of military Taps and the traditional, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”, during the Mogwai-esque build-up of instrumental drone between songs.
While enthusiastic, the Sunday evening crowd was surprisingly docile, too, as if they weren’t quite sure whether it was okay to cut loose and feel the energy of the music. This may have been a consequence of the band’s approach, which toes the line between hardcore and the poppier tendencies of bands like Arcade Fire, but it would’ve been nice to see some actual movement near the stage instead of the stock-still hipster paralysis that occurred. The band’s spirits did not appear to be dampened, even though they did not return to the stage for an encore the crowd lustily chanted for at the end of the set.
Admidst scads of critical praise for The Monitor, Titus has also been named one of the top 10 new bands of 2010 by Rolling Stone. If you want to catch them at their most vital and mercurial, now is probably the time. -Words and Photographs by Luke Pimentel, Contributing Editor
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