Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Don’t be fooled into thinking that Local Business, the new album from New Jersey-based indie punkers Titus Andronicus, is somehow less ambitious just because it isn’t a concept album like The Monitor, their acclaimed 2010 album which looked at a breakup through the allegorical lens of The Civil War. After all, every song that frontman Patrick Stickles writes is practically a concept album unto itself.
Previous Titus albums were essentially solo albums writ large, with Stickles recruiting musicians on an ad hoc basis. This time around, the album was recorded with a stable core band behind Stickles. The chemistry is occasionally noticeable, like in the guitar breakdown during “My Eating Disorder” or the loose interplay on the almost-funky “(I Am) The Electric Man.” For the most part though, Titus Andronicus’ songs, whether fast-paced and propulsive or slow and shambolic, are still little more than an excuse for their leader to vent his spleen with full-throated ardor.
Stickles often gets lumped in with other disciples of Springsteen like The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn or Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon. That comes in part because of the Jersey connection, but also because his verbosity is somewhat reminiscent of early Boss. The main difference is that Springsteen generally approaches his songs from a hopeful view tempered with a realistic view of the world’s problems, whereas Stickles sees only the problems and is empowered by the knowledge that at least he isn’t being fooled.
For an example of his Stickles’ glass-nearly-empty approach, when he sees a wreck on the highway in “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape,” he doesn’t want to go home and hug his loved ones like Bruce did in the closing song on The River. Instead, he snipes at the people in traffic whining that this accident will slow up their routine before eventually musing that “There are a thousand dreams never to come to pass.”
Some of his best observations get lost in the full-throttle approach of songs like “Ecce Homo” and “Still Life With A Hot Deuce And Silver Platter.” It isn’t until the album’s second half that pace slows, some open spaces appear in the music, and Stickles’ rants come into clearer focus. He rails against conformity in the shapeshifting “In A Small Body,” coining a pretty durable punk slogan in the process: “Don’t tell me I was born free.”
On closing track “Tried To Quit Smoking,” which stumbles at a staggering pace like a drunk at last call, Stickles manages to apologize for being so unapologetic, acknowledging how his nihilistic approach can be so hard on those who love him. Local Business could have used more of that thoughtful approach to counter the unrelenting assault. With a talent like Stickles at the helm, that’s kind of moderation is all it will take for people to start comparing other bands to Titus Andronicus instead of the other way around.