Even with the release of their third studio album Local Business, it’s hard to pigeonhole Titus Andronicus. After their previous two releases, 2008’s The Airing of Grievances and 2010’s The Monitor, the band became an indie favorite that toured heavily and popped up on ‘Top 10s;’ and yet, they still feel kind of like the music critic’s favorite rock band. Plenty of folks will agree that the band is one of the better ones around right now, but its hard to pinpoint just what gives the band its umph and why they haven’t quite broken through, though, I bet they are more than okay with that.
Listening to a Titus record reveals a host of influences that range from the obvious, early Bruce Springsteen, to the playful and catchy group singalong choruses that the Ramones popularized and sometimes I wonder if they hang out with the guys from Cymbals Eat Guitars. Other times, most obviously on The Monitor, they dabbled in prog rockesque ten minutes songs and oblique references to Abraham Lincoln and The Civil War.
On Local Business, Titus retain the sensibilities that made their previous two records so remarkable. A propensity for catchy, if not quite poppy, choruses that occasionally resemble shouty Reel Big Fish mixed in with a post-punk snarl and the kind of rollicking rock and roll that fans of The Band might recognize. They seamlessly weave between these disparate genres without collapsing into an unrecognizable sonic mess and, somehow, it always makes sense.
The storytelling aspect of their songs, notably on “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape With The Flood of Detritus,” give way to catchy phrases that repeat, which in this case is “thrown away,” that also will remind fans of “The enemy is everywhere” from The Monitor’s “Titus Andronicus Forever.” These chants build momentum over steadily heightening guitar riffs and percussive crescendos in what has become one of the group’s hallmark sounds. Call it their “Rockaway Beach.”
On songs like “Food Fight,” a wry sense of humor alleviates any hints of pretense that a band could otherwise lapse into. The fact that “Food Fight” leads into “My Eating Disorder” is an interesting juxtaposition: you realize they aren’t taking themselves all that seriously, despite the long and strange song titles that make you wonder if you’re missing something.
The band has always enjoyed a good guitar riff and there is room for pretty straightforward rock and roll here. The eight minute long “My Eating Disorder” almost feels like two different songs and ends with a proggy final two minutes of distorted guitars that are replaced by Patrick Stickles repeating “Spit it out / Spit it out” over souring solos and the ratatat of the percussion section. The power of repetition is something Titus has been onto since the beginning. The record’s most powerful moments occur when Betson latches onto a phrase or a word and chants it over well-orchestrated instrumentals.
The two-minute long “Titus Andronicus vs. The Absurd Universe” is the most straightforward punked out song and also, the song most likely to become a single, even though it is the least Titus-like song on the album. In an economical 120 seconds the band shreds through a throwback song that will remind listeners of a less-polished Bouncing Souls and even early Offspring (which makes me wonder if the boys in Titus were listening to the same music I was growing up in the 90s and 2000s).
“Titus vs. The Absurd” is followed by “In a Big City,” a song that stands out as the album’s best articulation of the band’s poppier inclinations. It also features the group’s most outstanding characteristics, namely their ability to tell a story’s beginning, middle and end in four minutes without sacrificing the emotional cues and sonic resonances that make their best songs so memorable.
Titus Andronicus sometimes remind me of The Hold Steady, not so much in the timbre of Stickle’s hoarse vocals that often recall a less whiney Conor Oberst or even the music itself, but rather in the rhythms of speech and the rhythms of songs. Nothing ever feels rushed and the band’s splendid sense of balance and timing are something you can enjoy over and over again.