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Titus Andronicus: Civil War Punk Rock

On its debut album, The Airing of Grievances, New Jersey's Titus Andronicus sounded like yet another better-than-average punk band venting about its post-adolescent woes. But the group's new release is a bit more ambitious.

The leader of Titus Andronicus, Patrick Stickles, isn't one of those cartoon punks who spell stupid with two Os. No short, snappy songs for this band — on its debut album, his three-chord thrash was sprawling, ending with three seven-minute songs. So it's not too much of a surprise that the follow-up, The Monitor, mixes images of youthful angst with images of the Civil War. Quotations from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" even show up in "Richard II."

After college, Stickles left suburban Glen Rock, N.J., to join a girlfriend in Boston. There, he absorbed Ken Burns' The Civil War documentary and did a lot of related reading as his love life fell apart.

Such was the genesis of The Monitor. Oddly, however, the album doesn't reference either of these inspirations all that much. Instead, historical pain and personal pain combine to inspire alternately furious and dejected meditations on the moral confusion of Stickles' generational cohort, who has "never seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

One song, "No Future Part Three," begins with a spoken epigraph from a young Abraham Lincoln bemoaning one of the brutal depressions that plagued his heroic life, and builds to the tale of a young man who laments his dependence on prescription drugs. Do you hate that creep whining "You will always be a loser" at the end? Me, too, especially after he's mewled on for 40 seconds. Only then, those same words transmute into a shouted battle cry that lasts another minute and a half.

Stickles name-checks Bruce Springsteen in a 14-minute finale called "The Battle of Hampton Roads," a song that devotes all of 27 seconds to the the Monitor and the Merrimack — the ironclad ships that fought the Battle of Hampton Roads to a draw. And, if only because Stickles is from New Jersey, comparisons to The Boss are inevitable.

But I think of him as a cross between The Replacements' Paul Westerberg and Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst — the tuneful anger of one, the desperate lyricism of the other. Because his basic method is to contrast his slow, pained side to his speedy, defiant side, he's hard to excerpt. So let's conclude by thinking about the anthem called "Titus Andronicus Forever," and recognizing how passionately Patrick Stickles tries to defeat negative undertow with the power of will — and fast guitar music.

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MusicMorning EditionAll Things Considered
Robert Christgau contributes regular music reviews to All Things Considered.