Titus Andronicus: Points of Departure
No band is an island. The best songwriters tend to be sponge-like soaker-uppers of music, film, fine art, literature and other forms of culture, be they popular or obscure, and these influences often find their way into the music, helping listeners branch out and develop new interests. With Points of Departure, we use our favorite groups as springboards for broader cultural investigations and highlight some of the cool things you might get into via your record collection. This week: Titus Andronics.
The New Jersey-based indie-rock band named itself after William Shakespeare's late-16th century play, widely believed to be the Bard's first tragedy. Then again, some scholars doubt that Shakespeare even wrote the play. Whatever the case, the story centers on the title character, a general in the Roman army, and the bloody game of wits he plays with Tamora, Queen of the Goths. 'Titus Andronicus' is Shakespeare's most violent play, with tons of revenge kills and a higher body count than in any of his other works. In a way, it's sort of the 'Pulp Fiction' of its day, but without the critical acclaim. (The play doesn't get a whole lotta love from Shakespeare lovers.) Still, that cynical outlook on mankind certainly fits in with group frontman Patrick Stickles' often bleak worldview. But instead of picking up knives and swords to settle scores, Stickles and his band plug in and rage on about how much people suck. They even included a quote from the play in the song 'Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ' from their debut album.
Titus Andronicus' terrific second LP, 'The Monitor' (2010), is a concept album about the Civil War -- specifically, it focuses on the USS Monitor, one of the first ships used by the Navy. The album's last song, the 14-minute 'The Battle of Hampton Roads' even recounts the war vessel's most historical battle. There are some detours along the way, but most of the songs -- like 'A More Perfect Union,' 'A Pot in Which to Piss' and 'Four Score and Seven' -- keep the war, and the men who fought it, at the center of the action.
The title of Titus Andronicus' 2009 debut album, 'The Airing of Grievances,' comes from the 'Festivus' episode of 'Seinfeld' -- the one where George's dad invents a new holiday to fight the commercialization of Christmas. One of the holiday's celebration rituals is the airing of grievances, in which folks run down the things that the bug them about their loved ones. Appropriately, Stickles spends most of his time on the album doing just that. The band nods to another beloved NBC sitcom in 'The Monitor' song 'Theme From "Cheers",' which has almost nothing to do with the hit show from the '80s. (The real theme from 'Cheers' is called 'Wherever Everybody Knows Your Name' and sounds nothing like Titus Andronicus' bleary-eyed tune.) Still, both TV show and Titus' song are about drinking ... a lot. But where Norm and crew had mostly civilized discourse over their beers, Stickles and his band pound violently on the bar demanding Guinness and Keystone Light until they can't stand upright.