Sunday, July 7, 2013

Titus Andronicus - The Airing of Grievances

The Airing of Grievances (2008)  ***

Spot the influence adds up to a Rorschach test for the contemporary listener:  while a respected elder like myself might hear another chip off the early Replacements (hey, the band does cover "Kids Don't Follow," in concert), kids whose fresher memories go all the way back to the early '00s will hear this as Conor Oberst fronting a heavily-fuzzed, keyboard-less Arcade Fire; while the generation in between us will hear traces of …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead (what a ridiculous name to type) and Archers of Loaf (what an even more ridiculous name).  In other words, it's perilously close to generic indie rock; played with an excess of enthusiasm and hi NRG, but on initial impression a bit too faceless to stand out of the pack.  (Oh, and listeners even older than me?  Let it be known that the band are from New Jersey, are inclined to lengthy, air-punching anthems, and are rumored to put on a helluva live show.  In other words, some critics feel obliged to drop in a gratuitous Springsteen comparison.) And speaking of reference points:  the band's name comes via Shakespeare and the album title via Seinfeld, which demonstrates that the band has one foot in artsy pretensions and the other in post-modern pop culture (but doesn't every band feature the latter these days?).  And speaking of literary pretensions, one track does indeed feature frontman Patrick Strickles reciting a speech from that Shakespeare play.  The final track includes a recitation from The Stranger.  The track is helpfully entitled "Albert Camus".  Another track bears the title "Upon Viewing Bruegel's 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'".  Yes, the lad seems intent on demonstrating that his liberal arts education was not entirely wasted after he wound up fronting a sweaty, beer-soaked bar band for his post-collegiate career.  (Strickles is, for all purposes, TA - the band's lineup has so far changed with every succeeding LP, and if there's another creative force present, I'm unaware of him or her).

That the band's ambitions bite more than they can chew creates some ironic tension: TA are proficient at basic, loudfastrules garage rock, yet they chomp at the bit at such restrictions - without, it being said, the instrumental capacity to achieve such sophisticated art rock ambitions.  As such, the band stretch out their little indie garage tunes past the normal limits:  they flip the punk aesthetic of in-n-out brevity on its head, with over half of these 9 songs hovering in the 5 to 7 minute range.  The band's performances are just this side of stompingly energetic to get by, though on first listen the careening anarchic atmosphere sounds too scattershot - but eventually a hook to grab hold of pulls you aboard the freight train.  Here, let me break down the album's flaws:

1) As I pointed out earlier, instrumentally the band are just semi-competent indie rockers, nothing special.

2) Strickles' voice is the most sonically identifiable deal-breaker:  he screams hoarsely in a highly unpleasant manner that you either learn to tolerate or don't, and that I doubt anyone has grown to love.

3) The bargain-indie production muffles the vocals and performances to the point where most of the lyrics are barely comprehensible and the band sound at once tinny and densely cluttered.  TA's poor arranging skills (at this stage in their development) may be equally at fault.

4) The default mode is "classic rock epic performed at punky speed" which makes the songs feel paradoxically  long-winded and rushed (not to mention too all-sounds-the-samey).  The drummer bashes away militaristically with no subtlety and the guitarists chime jangly with their arms in permanent strum:  the band simply never lets up.  And when they do, on the sole ballad, "No Future Part I", the album screeches to a grinding halt with the worst track.  At this point, the hyper-caffeinated Strickles is utterly incapable of handling a slow one.

Those flaws are glaringly obvious, yet as is sometimes the case with young, fresh debuts by bands with potential greatness in them, Titus manage to overcome those defects with their youth and freshness.  They play rock'n'roll with the enthusiasm of early 20somethings whose lives depend upon it, which is a rare enough commodity in these post-rock, neutered times.  A little more seasoned expertise and sharpening up of their songwriting skills, and these kids could really have some potential.


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