Wise punks from New Jersey craft a concept album for the ages.
Mon Mar 1 2010
We’re in the midst of New York City’s biggest snowstorm in years, white powder clogging the streets and making instant memories for almost all of the city’s residents. What’s most notable for me, though, is talking philosophy with Titus Andronicus at the back of Williamsburg’s Blackbird Parlour. Seated on a wooden theater seat, legs crossed and pensive, guitarist Patrick Stickles reveals a mind-set far beyond his 24 years. Topics of conversation range from Millian Utilitarianism to The Real Housewives of New Jersey. (Stickles and baby-faced bassist Ian Graetzer, now based in Brooklyn, are originally from the town of Glen Rock, New Jersey, and still practice at Graetzer’s parents’ house.)
The wide spectrum of subjects is fitting for Titus Andronicus: This is a punk-rock band steeped in cultural references, with a Shakespeare-inspired moniker and songs that refer to The Dark Knight and Bruce Springsteen. At the Blackbird, Stickles and Graetzer are discussing The Monitor, their latest release and the first great concept album of the new decade.
Named after the USS Monitor, which fought in the Battle of Hampton Roads (the title of the record’s last song), the album is conceptually anchored in the American Civil War. The disc bustles with warfare imagery and features Lincoln quotations read by Stickles and Graetzer’s octogenarian former drama teacher, Okey Chenoweth. It’s all a metaphorical entry point for Stickles. “The record is really about modern times,” he explains. “The Civil War is really an extended allegory.”
With repeated calls of “the enemy is everywhere” and “us against them,” the album’s confrontational stance addresses “being accountable for your own happiness,” Stickles says. “The enemy is always going to come out on top, more or less. The only real currency in modern human civilization is to stick to what you—in your heart—believe to be the right path, and to behave ethically and morally in accordance to your own standards.” He defends “passionate beliefs” and the respect Generals Grant and Lee had for one another. Graetzer provides a pop-culture spin: “It’s like the plot of SLC Punk!”
The epic scope of The Monitor extends beyond its lofty lyrical themes. It’s a far more ambitious effort than Titus Andronicus’s excellent debut, The Airing of Grievances. This time around, Stickles, Graetzer and drummer Eric Harm (the third core member of the fluctuating group) had more time in the studio, courtesy of the XL label. Produced by Kevin McMahon at Marcata Recordings’ barn near New Paltz, New York, The Monitor stretches out the band’s previous five-minute-plus habits and brings in members of Wye Oak, Ponytail and Spider Bags—not to mention Clarence Clemons--like sax solos, bagpipe outros and genre dabbling that recalls the Clash (“A Pot in Which to Piss”) and the Replacements (“Theme from 'Cheers’”). All the while, Stickles’s croak brings to mind—as has been widely reported, to his chagrin—Conor Oberst.
With so much going on, it can be hard to see this effort as punk rock. Many of the songs hinge on blistering guitars, screaming vocals and fuck-off lyrics, but what’s really punk is Titus Andronicus’s ethos. On the day of the snowstorm, Stickles posted an online call for fans to let the band crash on couches or floors. “Do we think we’re better than Fugazi?” Stickles jokes. “There’s a wealth of wonders that bands miss out on if they go to Motel 6.” Graetzer, who majored in marketing and now manages the band’s business, points to overhead as motivation. Stickles, who concentrated in English, talks about the behavioral models of Minor Threat and Black Flag before lifting his shirt to reveal a Crass tattoo. I mention the underground rock book Our Band Could Be Your Life. “I’ve read that book, like, 20 times,” Stickles says. As he swigs his Guinness, his bright eyes show a singular intent: Our band could be your life too.
Five more crucial concept albums from the 2000s
1 The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002)
A superhero named after a member of the Boredoms? Oh, hell yes.
2 The Thermals, The Body, the Blood, the Machine (2006)
Hutch Harris & Co. thrash as a couple flees a Christofascist government.
3 Deltron 3030, Deltron 3030 (2000)
Del the Funky Homosapien and Dan the Automator spin yarns from a tripped-out future.
4 Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (2005)
Vivid imagery shines from Pre-Obamaland. We’re still waiting on 48 more, Sufjan.
5 Mastodon, Leviathan (2004)
Metal and Moby-Dick make for excellent bedfellows, er, shipmates.
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