Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

The redress of grievances

Last week, I went to see Titus Andronicus (along with The Tough Shits and local boys Free Energy) at the First Unitarian Church in Philly. Titus Andronicus at the First Unitarian Church, Philadelphia, Sept. 23, 2010 You may recall that I wasn't entirely happy the last time I saw them (last year in Louisville) and I skipped them in favor of the Thermals when they came through Philadelphia this spring. Nevertheless, I headed to this show with some pretty high expectations, based on my ever-deepening love for their latest album, The Monitor. I am happy to report that Thursday's show exceeded even those expectations. They were, in a word, brilliant.

Of course, it was a bit sloppy (and there was something weird going on with the sound on the keyboards), but where the previous show was sloppy to the point of distraction, this one stayed right at that point of frenetic chaos you hope for from a punk rock show, where you lose yourself in sound and motion and energy (and heat: the Church is a notorious sweatbox, and this was the by far the hottest show I’ve seen there. By the end, the entire floor was slick with sweat, I was dripping from head to toe, and it took, literally, two days for the clothes I wore to the show to dry out). Even the slower songs (or sections of songs) contributed to the energy by providing a chance to catch one's breath (something this 42-year-old found particularly welcome) before the next burst of fury. My only complaint would be with some of the beefier male audience members, who apparently don’t know the difference between ‘slam dancing’ and ‘running headlong into crowds of people like an asshole’, but those types can be found at almost any punkish show, and in this case, the behavior stayed mostly at the nuisance level.

So why the transformation? The band's composition has changed significantly since 2009, but since my biggest complaint then was with frontman Patrick Stickles, that doesn't seem like the best explanation. The enthusiastic and appreciative audience (excepting the assholes mentioned above) probably helped—Amy Klein, one of the newer band members, tweeted afterwards that it was the best show of my life!!!!!! The fact that they were close to home and wrapping up a cross-country tour might have helped amp them up a bit. But I think I would chalk most of it up to the growing maturity of the band both personally (Stickles was conspicuously chugging Gatorade rather than beer during the show) and musically. Especially musically.

I liked 2008's The Airing of Grievances a lot. There are some terrific songs on it, and an undeniable energy. But The Monitor is a quantum step forward. I'll let the Dean do the reviewing for me:

Their debut was one of those inexplicable accidents in which some dysfunction-channeling young malcontent recaptures the halcyon days when every punk band had something to say by simple virtue of existing. Usually these malcontents run out of jokes or tunes pretty quick. Seldom if ever do they then channel their dysfunction into, for instance, a concept album that squooshes an interstate breakup saga into a bunch of Civil War references. That's New Jersey returnee Patrick Stickles's project, only channeling is for punks and he's some indigenous emo-Springsteen hybrid--for an hour of rant and roll whose nine tracks range up to 14 minutes, it's more like sloshing or spewing.... Stickles bellows, "None of us shall be saved, every man will be a slave," "After ten thousand years it's still us against them," "The enemy is everywhere." You could complain that these cris de coeur are a loser feeling sorry for himself, and I could admit he's overstating. But at least he's stating. He may be a loser and he may not. Either way, he's not about to quit.

I'll go further than Christgau and simply call it the best album of 2010 (definitely the best of the ones I've heard). As he notes, its premise seems preposterous on its face (a concept album? filtering personal heartbreak through the Civil War? that includes a 14-minute song?). The lyrics are as dark and bitter as you'll find anywhere (”I will not deny my humanity. / I will be rolling in it like a pig in feces. / 'Cause there's no other integrity / In awaiting the demise of our species”—from the absolutely perfect ”Richard II or Extraordinary Popular Dimensions and the Madness of Crowds (Responsible Hate Anthem)”). The music is hard and aggressive, but includes such improbable elements as military drum-rolls, keening violin (played by Klein), and wailing bagpipes. By some kind alchemy, however, Titus Andronicus succeeds in fusing these ingredients into songs that are angry, desperate, beautiful, and joyous.

It’s the joy that is most unlikely and unexpected. Lots of bands make records that are angry and misanthropic, and I am all for that. But I can’t recall the last time I heard misanthropy made into such anthemic crowd-pleasers. As Perfect Sound Forever’s Jason Gross tweeted from their final show in New York, ”Titus Adronicus [sic] live- something liberating about singing 'you will always be a loser' with them & entire crowd”. It’s as if, by voicing their (and our) darkest despairs and ugliest hatreds, they exorcise them, and we the audience can share in and celebrate that exorcism.

I keep falling back on magical terms (alchemy, exorcism) to describe how I think this album works. I think all great art is, in a sense, magical. Art does the impossible: taking mundane ingredients (sounds, words, paint, etc.) and combining them into something wholly new and unanticipated. We can analyze artistic objects—make interpretations, trace influences, examine technique—but I don't think any of that quIte suffices to explain what happens when something that has never existed before suddenly is.

To put it bluntly, art is a fucking miracle.

Random Addenda

  • Oddest moment of the show: during a brief break between songs, parts of the audience started up a ‘Let's go Phillies’ chant (we're a little excited about our baseball team here), to which Stickles responded with an impromptu rendition of Meet the Mets (a song that has, notably, been covered by another great New Jersey band, Yo La Tengo). There was a brief standoff, with Stickles and the chanters trying to drown each other out, until he declared, ”enough with baseball. This is punk rock. Situation defused.
  • After the show, I talked briefly to Titus Andronicus guitarist/violinist/vocalist Amy Klein, who graciously agreed to my request to take a photo of her with her violin. Both of my kids are taking violin lessons, and I really wanted to show them (especially my daughter) that violinists can be rock stars.
  • Klein tweets and blogs as ‘Amy Andronicus’ and has a lot of interesting things to say about being a woman in the androcentric world of indie/punk rock (among other things). Her Rock and Roll Is Dead post, in particular, seems to have generated a lot of discussion.