Today’s garage-rock is too often tarred with the criticism of being all style, no substance; just a fun party (see: Black Lips – QRO live review). Meanwhile, today’s workingman’s punk is called too serious, even bordering on emo in its earnestness (see: Lucero – QRO album review). So what happens when you combine these two new strains of rock ‘n’ roll? If done right, one gets Titus Andronicus’ latest, The Monitor, a call-to-arms that can rollick.
The Monitor opens with an old-timey recording of an old-timey voice declaring that America & Americans shall always be free, or die trying, even in the face of “some Transatlantic giant”, and “all the armies of Europe and Asia shall not take a drink from the Ohio River.” But Titus Andronicus take this Birchian/Tea Party/Red Dawn view neither too seriously nor as an out-and-out joke, but use it to introduce their upraising “A More Perfect Union”, and this is where the band is strongest – mostly the beginning & end of the album. The following “Titus Andronicus Forever” and penultimate “…And Ever” bring an even more rollicking sound, with the chorus line, “The enemy is everywhere!” And The Monitor ends with the fourteen-minute “The Battle of Hampton Roads”. Inspired by the two-day naval Civil War naval conflict between USS Monitor and CSS Virginia in 1862 (though Bishop Allen already did that with “The Monitor” – QRO video), “Hampton” starts with the return of the old-timey voice, but brighter this time, and the band restrains their pressure at first, with nice explosions, some choice lines (“Is there a girl at this college who hasn’t been raped?”), and even bagpipes at the end.
Unfortunately, the middle of The Monitor sags somewhat. When the band gets softer and more evocative, such as on “Four Score and Seven” or “To Old Friends and New”, Titus verge on the over-earnestness of workingman’s punk. Their core sound also repeats itself, not just in the beginning & end, but in the middle as well, to lesser effect. However, “Richard II” brings in some cow-punk, which is combined well with workingman’s punk on “Theme From ‘Cheers’” into a sort of a ‘farmer’s punk’ drinking song.
“Theme” also features another recurring theme, singer/guitarist Patrick Stickles’ pro-New Jersey stance (memorialized in the final McCarren Park Pool Party – QRO venue review – when Stickles unfurled the state flag during the performance of Hoboken’s Yo La Tengo – QRO photo). Hailing from the Garden State’s Glen Rock, Titus Andronicus do tap into some of that honest, working class nature that the often ridiculed state is still respected for (think The Sopranos, or Bruce Springsteen – QRO live review). But not too much, as the band leavens its seriousness with a rockin’ attitude (Jersey’s also the home of Abbott & Costello, Aqua Teen Hunger Force…). Somewhere between earnest & party, pasture & factory floor, Philadelphia & New York lies Titus Andronicus.