By David Von Nordheim, A&E Editor for The Current
The term “highly-anticipated follow-up” has long functioned as the albatross of the music press. It all but guarantees that an artist’s latest work will not be judged not on its own merits, but rather mercilessly pitted against critics’ nostalgia for their previous releases. Any innovation or deviation from their established sound will be deemed heresy; likewise, a rigid adherence to the template of their most beloved work will be declared artistic stagnation. It is an absurd tradition that has killed many a great album in the cradle, only for it to be excavated years later when the critics sheepishly admit that it was actually pretty decent.
And into this critical lion’s den enters “Local Business,” the “highly-anticipated follow-up” to Titus Andronicus’ 2010 opus “The Monitor.” An incredibly ambitious album by any standard, “The Monitor” was a hardcore punk epic conceptually framed around the American Civil War. It was a clever premise, cleverly linking the self-destructive mentality of American history’s most turbulent chapter to the monologues of self-doubt and internal conflict which characterize postmodern punk rock.
“Local Business,” by contrast, is a much simpler affair, with all of the benefits and disadvantages that come with parsimony. Lacking the gimmicky conceptual framework of “The Monitor,” “Local Business” tries to impress through raw power, and for the most part it succeeds. It is more approachable than its occasionally self-indulgent predecessor, which all but guarantees that it will be coldly received by many hard-nosed punk snobs.
But this album was not made for them anyways, and more open-minded listeners will find that Titus Andronicus does, in fact, make several bold adjustments to their vaguely folk-inflected brand of hardcore. Largely forsaking the Pogues-inspired protest punk of their previous albums, “Local Business” is a tight, focused blast of left-of-center pub rock. Vocalist Patrick Stickles sounds far less vitriolic (and alcoholic) here, his drunken caterwaul substituted for a purposeful, mid-range sneer which sounds strangely similar to Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock.
With “Local Business,” Titus Andronicus offers definitive evidence that nobody can form a band in New Jersey without a little bit of The Boss winding up in their musical DNA. Harmonicas and honky tonk pianos make several convincing appearances throughout the album, such as the goofy E Street interlude “Food Fight!,” earning Titus Andronicus’s membership in the “indie rock bands who secretly want to be Bruce Springsteen” club, whose other distinguished members include The Hold Steady and The Gaslight Anthem.
Though “Local Business” may find the guys embracing the musical legacy of New Jersey’s most celebrated citizen, though, it finds them mulling over the same lyrical preoccupations of their previous work. Try as they may to disguise it behind layers of literary allusions (their name, after all, is cribbed from a Shakespearean tragedy), Titus Andronicus’ lyrics are still steeped in the same diatribes of personal angst which have characterized nearly every punk band created in the wake of emo. The anguish of youth weighs heavily on “Local Business,” but it strives to channel it into self-growth rather than senseless anger. The struggle for identity and self-worth is a pervasive theme throughout the album but the group sounds generally more optimistic about it now: whereas “The Monitor” found Stickles proclaiming “You’ll always be a loser” (“No Future Part Three”), opening track “Ecce Homo” concludes that “there’s something more to life than just being born,” likely the most confident statement the angst-ridden vocalist has ever uttered on an album.
“Local Business” finds Titus Andronicus embracing life after hardcore, a direction which the group seems to anticipate alienating a fair share of their fan base (the title alone seems to be weathering itself for accusations of “selling out”). Punks have to grow up sometime, though—the world is probably better off with a John Lydon rather than a Johnny Rotten—and the results are compelling, as with album closer “Tried to Quit Smoking,” a weary, Tom Waits-inflected piano ballad that is easily the least punk thing the group has ever attempted.
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