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The Monitor is a concept album about the Civil War, "sort of", says singer Patrick Stickles. It was recorded August (09) by Kevin McMahon at his studio - Marcata Recording - in New Paltz, NY. The usual suspects from the world of Titus Andronicus were all in attendance, as well as members of Ponytail, Wye Oak, Vivian Girls, and the Hold Steady. McMahon also mixed the album, and it was mastered by Greg Calbi ? whom the band chose because he is the only person alive who can claim involvement in both The Chemistry of Common Life by Fucked Up and Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell by Meat Loaf!
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The Monitor is, of course, the great American civil war ironclad battleship that fought to a standstill its Confederate equivalent CSS Virginia at the Battle of Hampton Roads. It is no great shock then to find an epic 14-minute long summation to the said battle on this album which in its ninth minute introduces the bagpipes! Let us forget the concept for now and pose the key question what's the music like? The album starts with someone quoting Abraham Lincoln and then "A more perfect union" erupts. Squalls of feedback breach into a huge drum beat/riff which would put the Gaslight Anthem to shame and singer Patrick Stickles announcing that "I never wanted to change the world, I'm not looking for a new New Jersey / But tramps like us / Baby we were born to die". Indeed, the current obsession of young American bands with the Boss knows no bounds except in this case its Bruce's nasty nephews at happy hour with ASBOs! At about 4 minutes 10 seconds, it seems to break into a different song that could be the Dropkick Murphys. Just hear it.
Second song "Titus Andronicus forever" is a 2-minute thrash out essentially revolving around a frankly mental guitar solo and the band screaming the "enemy is everywhere". "Richard II" subtitled with some lack of brevity (Or Extraordinary Popular Dimensions And The Madness Of Crowds (Responsible Hate Anthem) is one of the greatest songs the Pogues never recorded and will lead to the most raucous live shows any side of the Atlantic. "A pot in which to pxxx" is another 9-minute epic which contains within its boundaries just about the whole history of rock n roll and what I detect to be a couple of new chords! The albums epic highlight is "Fore Score and Seven" starting slowly with a Sickles offering a range of unprintable expletives. It has a bigger kick than a donkey with a migraine and turns into total rock'n'roll mayhem where at one time Stickles announces that "We're all depraved and disgusting, I spew like a fountain,/And debased, defaced, disgraced and destroyed,/Most of all disappointed" I say atop this mountain".
In this setting "Theme from Cheers" is actually quite a nice if rather anarchic pop song and for good measure why not reprise "Titus Andronicus forever" again, call it "And ever", and off we go again "The enemy is everywhere"...... Finally "To friends old and new" represents a lovely change of pace, a slow building boozy ballad which hangs on a huge guitar solo. This album is work of a band whose motto is the title of this review. Titus Andronicus are a rude, raw rock band who will be lucky to ever sell a record and that would be a little Shakespearian tragedy in its own right (the comparisons with the Replacements in this regard are spooky) "The Monitor" is hugely inventive, lyrically funny and often literate, partly Irish in feel with a splash of Conor Oberst and more often than not completely scabrous. Spin has called it "Born to Run's drunk stepchild on an epic spree". Wish I thought of that one.
Last year, Titus Andronicus the band snuck out The Airing of Grievances, an impressively abrasive garage-country-punk cacophony that recalled Cursive battling Bright Eyes's Desaparecidos project for supremacy. Their sophomore album The Monitor builds on that patented racket substantially, casually courting the Civil War by means of a concept whilst framing it against modern New Jersey living.
Not content, The Monitor sprawls decadently across 65 minutes, opening with a reading of Abraham Lincoln and later one of the then president of the Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis. Fourteen (14!) of these minutes are taken to digest "The Battle Of Hampton Roads" itself, a huge accomplishment of a track that includes an incongruous yet marvellously welcome bagpipe solo. Earlier, "...And Ever" even thinks to throw in a similarly pleasing E-Street sax chorus. Elsewhere, the Boss himself gets a name-check and more than a nod on "A More Perfect Union" with this choice deformation: "Tramps like us, baby, we were born to die."
Furthermore, The Monitor houses innumerable guest appearances including contributions by the likes of Vivian Girls and Craig Finn of The Hold Steady. The downtempo duet that Jenn Wassner of alt-folk outfit Wye Oak provides on "To Old Friends And New" is particularly memorable set against militaristic drumming. Suffice it to say that dumb punk-rock this is not.
The Monitor could easily have been an indulgent mess, yet Patrick Stickles' vocal vitriol ties the project together just as it did on the even more ramshackle debut. His tumbling rhythm lends the endeavour real weight, his variety more so. It's ironic then that nihilistic staples such as "the enemy is everywhere" and "you will always be a loser" are repeated obsessively until they land like smashing your head against the wall. However, these statements aren't aimless nor uncreative. Each instance increases in dramatic tension. Each builds to well-worked releases suggesting further schooling in Conor Oberst.
The quiet bridge in "No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future" rides along on frenetic hi-hat, "Richard II" is full of bouncing energy, clashing guitar edges and near-danceable, Pogues-like shenanigans. The galloping drums in "A Pot In Which To ****" match the distant "whoa, oh, ohs" to perfection as a reverbed riff takes centre stage. Like elsewhere, they then lurch back into piano-led, E-Street bar-room punk.
Sufficiently ragged throughout, The Monitor's rough edges provide its successes. Where backing "whoa, oh, oh, oohs" could have upset the raucous mix, raw interjections of guitar provide the necessary balance. Stickles' drunken Irish holler compliments The Monitor magnificently where a lesser voice could have veered it towards more plodding material. Over 65 minutes, inevitably there are candidates for exclusion on the basis of common economy, but surprisingly few jump out. Each guitar solo is full of adrenalin-soaked necessity, each reprised chorus full of alcohol-fuelled debauchery.
Titus Andronicus are simultaneously angry and fun and it makes them compelling listening. The Monitor is loose, lengthy and dishevelled. Together, they make an invincible statement of fear and awe.
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