Everyone knows that nostalgia is for chumps, but even so, it can occasionally be frustrating being a modern music fan. One of the most annoying aspects of today’s scene is the release calendar. The standard gap between albums is two years, while it can take the tentpole indie franchises three years to make a record, if not more (when are we gonna get a release date, Arcade Fire?). Back in the day, bands worked a lot quicker: everyone from The Beatles to The Pixies managed to squeeze out an album every year.
Now, I shouldn’t complain too much. Some of that sluggishness is due to economics—with record sales in the tank, musicians need to tour more to get the paper. And there’s an upside—since records come out pret¬ty infrequently, artists need to make sure that their releases are goddamn events. Despite what some old-timers say about the blandness and sameness of contemporary indie rock, one must admit that young bands these days tend to be ludicrously ambitious right from the get-go. So that brings us to our re¬views of the day, two ludicrously am¬bitious sophomore records from Titus Andronicus and These New Puritans, both of which are staggeringly successful.
Titus Andronicus’s new record, “The Monitor,” which sports a daguerreotype of the eponymous 19th century battleship on the cover, is being sold as a concept album about the Civil War, which it sort of is. Frontman Patrick Stickles has always used extremely dramatic allusions—Shakespearian tragedy, Camus’s existential uncertainty, the apocalyptic paintings of Brueghel—to convey how it felt to be an Angry Young Man of the educated variety wandering around suburbia and living with assholes. Now he’s using the War of Northern Aggression as one big metaphor for one particular frustration. Amidst all the references to 150-year-old battles and John Brown, and the spoken word interludes in which various folks (including Craig Finn and someone from Vivian Girls) read Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis speeches and the like, Stickles recounts his story of growing up in New Jersey, hat¬ing it, moving to Boston for college, hating it, and moving back to Jersey.
The overriding concept is like an angry response to “Born To Run,” and in fact, two minutes into opener “A More Perfect Union,” Stickles screams, “tramps like us, baby we were born to die.” In the universe of “The Monitor,” once you leave your hometown to try to make a new life for yourself, you’re still running into the same people you hate and dealing with the same problems. The record turns into a commercial of sorts for righteous anger and confrontation (refrains include “the enemy is everywhere” and “it’s still us against them”). If you can’t find happiness by running away, the only solution is to fight back against the people who made you miserable in high school until your hometown is a place worth living in. So despite its general pessimism (“it’s still us against them” is ultimately followed up by “and they’re winning”), “The Monitor” is a fairly idealistic record.
In a lot of ways, Titus Andronicus is a fairly standard indie rock band. They’ve logged time listening to Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes, and other heavies of contemporary indie, maybe even The Decemberists. While mainline indie is often treated as a security blanket for a generation of wimps, in Titus’s able hands it turns into drinking and fighting music. They take the E. Street shuffle that’s been so popular for the last few years and make it sound downright dangerous. And like every indie band making their second record, Titus throw in some orchestrations, layering on bagpipes, fiddle, horns, and enough guitar heroics to make The Hold Steady blush. The songs are long (closing track “The Battle of Hampton Roads” clocks in at 14 minutes, though the average is about eight), the vocals are histrionic, the tone bombastic, and the album is a stone-cold triumph.
As I just said, there is a standard way for indie bands to “expand” their sound on a second album: throw in an unobtrusive horn or string section, play a mandolin, add a few electronic beats or something. Pipe organs are great if you can afford one. A lot of folks do this to great effect—see Arcade Fire, or hey, Titus Andronicus—but truth is that much vaunted additions to a band’s sound rarely changes its fundamental character. Except when we’re talking about These New Puritans. On their new record, “Hidden,” the English post-punk revivalists have thrown out the indie band develop¬ment rulebook. Hell, they’ve thrown out the rock rulebook entirely, creating a disorientingly original work.
TNP were always more original than they got credit for—by integrat¬ing breakbeats and dancehall-ish synth flourishes, they broke with formalists like Editors or The Rakes and stayed true to the spirit of post-punk. But after spinning “Hidden” a few times I get the sense that head Puritan Jack Barnett would rather be mentioned alongside avant-garde composers than Mark E. Smith and Ian Curtis. Throughout the record the quartet is complemented by a 13-piece orches¬tra and a choir, and you’re more likely to hear a lead on oboe or French horn than guitar. The record is incredibly percussive, but Taiko drums, samples of swords being sharpened and glass breaking, and thuds that are apparently meant to simulate the cracking of a human skull are as prominent as George Barnett’s kit. And it isn’t like they try to cram all of that into normal rock song-structures. There’s nary a chorus in sights, just chants, drones, little fragments of melody that keep turning up in odd places, and plenty of counterpoint. They also cop some lyrics from M.I.A. Usually if a band listed Benjamin Britten as an influence, you could laugh off their pretension. But not this time.