It’s safe to say that 2013, as far as music is concerned, is over. For the better part of a month every music blog has been writing about their favorite albums of the year, producing list after list after list of best song, best album, as well as separate lists for every genre under the sun. I’ve done my best to avoid it, choosing instead to do full album reviews of albums that I feel are worth talking about and that I had missed during the year. I thought that a better thing to do might be to write about some of the albums that I am hoping to see in the year ahead. There are a lot of artists that were silent in 2013, some of which haven’t produced in album in several years, which could be surprising depending on the artists. Here’s what I hope to hear in 2014:
When “Transference” came out in 2010 Spoon had felt like that reliable band that churned out album after album, with solid results. It’s not that they were predictable, per se, as much as they were completely dependable. Going back as far as “Girls Can Tell,” not just a classic Spoon album, but a classic album in general, Brit Daniel and Jim Eno have been turning out unshakably poppy, tuneful albums. From what I remember “Transference” seemed to take a step back from all that, not reaching to the heights of their previous, fantastic, ridiculously named, “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.” Though I think that “Transference” is a fine album, it’s not necessarily my go-to when I pull a Spoon album off the shelf. Brit went off and did an album with a newly formed band, The Divine Fits, which was actually really good catchy retro-synth pop (can we consider music that is reminiscent of the 80’s retro now?). Here’s to hoping that Spoon returns to the fold in 2014 and that their nearly 4 years away from the studio allowed them to rest up and re-group to record some great new tracks.
Speaking of indie-rock stalwarts, Patrick Stickles’ New Jersey based punk rock band has three absolutely perfect albums under their belt. “The Airing of Grievances” is about as good as a debut album can get, and then they put out “The Monitor,” one of the best albums that I have ever heard. “Local Business” stripped back some of the high concept of those first two albums and delivered some straight ahead riff-based rock that shows the band easily churning out a full album’s worth or singles. Seeing the band this past September and accosting Stickles at the merch table (ok accost is a strong word, but I did talk to him when he clearly did not want to talk) he said that they would have a new album “ready to go in 14 months.” I remember this specifically because that was a strange number. Anyway, I hope that’s true, and I look forward to a new Titus album in November 2014.
I’m a huge Shellac fan. I’ve written about Albini’s casual mention earlier this year of a new album being ready to go (and then I went on to write about something completely different, but trust me it’s in there somewhere). Who knows what the hell will happen though. It’s not like the band needs the money, or is even in it for that reason. Whenever they put it out they’ll put it out and then probably tour a little bit behind it and then lock themselves in the studio again to work. I know that this is probably an unpopular opinion, as their fans are pretty fanatical and unmutable in their view of the band, but I really didn’t like their last album “Excellent Italian Greyhound,” so I’m especially looking forward to the next one. Here’s to hoping that it is closer in sound to “At Action Park,” or whatever.
If you’re going to release albums that are barely a half hour long, I’m going to want more than one every few years. I know that they have said repeatedly that they hate being in the studio, but unfortunately it’s a part of life. Both of their releases have been stellar so far, and I’m sure that whatever they come up with next will not be disappointing, so I hope that they get on it.
My favorite album of 2013. But I have the same complaint as with Japandroids. I mean, the album was EP length at best. I hope that this group of young kids has another great album in them because “Sunken” was an enviable debut and if they can pull off another album that good I think their status will be solidified as a force in the music world, whereas right now they are just hopefuls.
Of course I’m going to say of Montreal. I’ve loved everything that they’ve done, and sure “Lousy With Sylvianbriar” just came out barely a few months ago, but Kevin Barnes has been on a good run, releasing a lot of music year after year and constantly taking his writing to new and exciting places. With every twist and turn I’ve been on board, so let’s see how much farther he can take it.
That just about sums up what I am hoping for in the coming year. Of course I’m also looking forward to the unexpected, the bands that haven’t released anything yet and therefore aren’t on the radar. That is always the most exciting part of writing a blog, the getting new stuff dropped into the mailbox, or linked to on soundcloud. So here’s to another year of new sounds by bands new and old, the expected and the unexpected.
I’ve been wanting to do a post like this for a long time. I think that periodically it will be fun to actually write about music theory stuff, considering that is what I am going to school for. I’m going to try to cover stuff that I find in rock tunes that I think is interesting, things that I would teach to my class. I’ll try to do this as clearly as possible. The main purpose, for me, is to maybe take some of the mystery out of music theory and also to help people possibly develop a little bit more of a critical ear.
The first song that I am going to use is “Arms Against Atrophy” from the first Titus Andronicus album “The Airing of Grievances” from 2009. Here’s the song:
Now, the first guitar we hear is playing two Cs an octave apart, and the 2nd guitar part comes in playing an A-flat major chord. So we can visualize it this way:
Based on the chord progression through the verse, an oscillation between A-flat major and F minor, we can say that this section of the song is pretty solidly in the key of A-flat major. Notice the key signature of 4 flats (B-flat, E-flat, A-flat and D-flat) and that neither an A-flat major chord or an F minor use any accidentals outside of that key signature, because both chords are diatonic, in other words – they belong to the key. The A-flat major chord is built on scale degree 1 while the F minor chord is built on scale degree 6, so in theory terms we would call these chords tonic and sub-mediant respectively. Basically the A-flat major chord is the most important, everything leads back to it.
Now, when I say that the chord is “built” on certain scale degrees what I mean is that the scale degree, of which there are 7, serves as the pitch that the rest of the notes in the chord are based on. Chords are formed by stacking thirds. For example the A-flat major chord would begin with A-flat and then a third above that (staying in the key) is C, and a diatonic third above that is E-flat.
Above we have the A-flat major scale. Scale degree 1 is A-flat, 2 is B-flat, 3 is C and so on all the way back up to A-flat. So if we stack thirds on top of each of these pitches we have something that looks like this:
From left to right we have tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant, and leading tone triads. The ones that we are going to focus on are the tonic and submediant. I won’t bother going into Roman Numeral analysis here to try to keep things simpler.
Looking at the diatonic triads we can see that the pitches in the A-flat major tonic triad are A-flat, C and E-flat; while the pitches in the submediant triad are F, A-flat and C. We can see that both of these chords have two pitches in common, the A-flat and the C.
Thinking back to that opening guitar line, the 1st guitar part that strums the C octaves in eighth notes. That C is a common pitch shared between both chords that appear in the verse, which allows the 1st guitar to keep those eighth notes constant throughout the verse. This is important to how the song is going to modulate.
When we say that a song modulates we are saying that the song is changing key. The most common modulation for a song that begins in a major key is to modulate to the dominant. One of the reasons that this is so common is because the keys are so close to each other, in a manner of speaking. The key signature for A-flat major, for example, is 4 flats, as we have seen above. The key signature for E-flat major (the dominant key) is 3 flats. The tonic chord of E-flat major can be taken directly from the key of A-flat major without changing anything, it remains E-flat, G, B-flat. We would say that these keys are closely related because they are next to each other on the circle of fifths.
Without going completely off course here, the circle of fifths is the way that we think of key relations. Basically this means hopping from one dominant to the next. For example A-flat, E-flat, B-flat, F, C, G, D, A, E, B, F#, C#, G#/A-flat …that is the complete circle of fifths beginning on the key that we are looking at here for this song. The further away from your home key, the more distant the relationship between the keys and the more chromatic alterations are necessary to maneuver between the two.
A modulation to a distantly related key, i.e. more than 2 steps on the circle of fifths, can be accomplished a few different ways. Again, I’m not going to go too far into it, because things get complicated pretty quick. One of the ways that you can, however, is through the use of a common pitch that exists in both of the keys. “Arms Against Atrophy” modulates to the key of C major in the bridge (2:20). Thee’s that C again.
Let’s compare the two scales, A-flat major and C major:
Note that the C major scale is lacking flats (or sharps, for that matter) in the key signature. This is because it is 4 steps away on the circle of fifths. Tonic of C major, C, is the same pitch as the mediant of A-flat major. Remember how A-flat, C, E-flat and F, A-flat, C made up the two chords of the verse, A-flat major and F minor respectively, with that C common between the two? Well the bridge here moves to a C major tonic: C, E, G. We know that it is a modulation and not just using the mediant triad because of the chord progression that follows that establishes the pitch C as the focus, or tonal center. Think of it like the center of gravity that all the pitches are drawn to. The chord progression in the bridge moves from tonic to dominant to subdominant and back to tonic again. We say that this progression establishes the tonic because it basically (simplifying again here) moves toward the dominant and returns to what is now being called tonic.
We would say, then, that “Arms Against Atrophy” by Titus Andronicus modulates from A-flat major to the distantly related key of C major through the common pitch of C. You can even hear the shift that happens, listen to the very beginning of the song. Hear those opening Cs, and then hear how they fit into the chords that guitar 2 introduces. Now go to 2:15 and listen to those very same Cs and hear how guitar two comes in now.
As a quick conclusion, you may be asking, “well the song returns to the verse after the bridge so…how do we get back to A-flat major tonic? I don’t hear the C-octaves again.” Well, first off I would say that it is true. Hey, you can’t keep doing the same thing over and over, right? The final chord of the bridge is F-major, or the subdominant in the key of C major and is made from the pitches F, A and C. Notice that this is only one pitch away from the F minor chord (F, A-flat, C) that was 50% of the verse. The last line of the bridge “…and she’s got the nail clippers at my throat,” (3:04-3:07) is where we are preparing to move back to A-flat major. The F major chord is used underneath “…and she’s got the nail clippers at my” and then they drop the A of the F major chord down a half step to A-flat on the word “throat” to create an F minor chord. That pitch, A-flat, then rings (3:07-3:17) alone until the verse picks up again with an A-flat major chord and we are up and running again, establishing the original tonic again. To be more technical this is referred to as a chromatic mediant relationship.
I hope that you were able to follow along here and that I could help you to understand the way that this song works and how music can work in general. This is only one tiny subject of many so I expect that I’ll be doing more of this in the future. Thanks for reading.
Oregon, and the rest of this corner of the country, has really been coming up the past few years with regard to music festivals. There’s Sasquatch, in central Washington, bringing in an impressive lineup of bands in May. The Treefort music festival in Boise in March that brought in a whole slew of great artists like Dan Deacon, Youth Lagoon, Earth and Quasi. Of course, as one of my recent posts pointed out, there is also the annual roots/folk festival just outside of Portland called Pickathon.
But, in my opinion, the most exciting of all of these is the SxSW style MusicFest NorthWest that happens all over the city of Portland for nearly an entire week at the beginning of September. The beginning of September, for those of you that aren’t fortunate enough to live in the Pacific Northwest, is when our weather tends to be absolutely perfect. Little to no rain, warm, sunny, everything you don’t think of when you think of the weather in the Pacific Northwest.
The artists that are brought to this area for each of these festivals keep getting better with each passing year. Last year Lightning Bolt, Deerhoof and Fucked Up playing MFNW were the bands that originally brought the festival to my attention and now that the full lineup has been released I would seriously urge people to sell a kidney if they had to in order to get there.
The full lineup and schedule have been officially released, which includes Neko Case, Animal Collective, Deerhunter, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Titus Andronicus, Dan Deacon, Superchunk, The Thermals, The Dodos, Surfer Blood and a whole bunch more that I would give anything to see. It’s the largest music festival in the Northwest and the 3rd largest indoor music festival in the country, no small feat.
Wristbands range in price from $90 to $200, each guaranteeing free entry to any show, though the cheaper ones are “space permitting” while VIP is “immediate entry.” You can also buy individual tickets for each show, for those of you that don’t want to spend a week running across Portland (though if you were going to run around a city, Portland would be a good one to do it in. The light rail is pretty fantastic there.) And being that it is very similar in style to SxSW there is, of course, TechFestNW that overlaps with the last two days of the music festival.
If you’re in the area, or even if you are within a few days drive I would say go for it. Catch all the shows you can, and if you can’t get in to all of the shows that you wanted to, hey, you’re still in Portland. Have a beer.
Titus Andronicus has released a mixtape through their tumblr presence that not only includes properly recorded versions of two new tracks, but also a whole host of collectible material from their early days prior to the recording of their first album, outtakes from their 2010 masterpiece The Monitor, acoustic demos and even some Weezer (?!) covers. It’s travelling around the internet already, so grab it while it’s hot and pump yourself up for more new material from Titus Andronicus, but I would warn you against following Patrick Stickles on twitter as that dude stays up late and can be really annoying, but then again he also announces stuff like this via twitter so….consider yourself warned.
By the way, following the download link to their tumblr page will also provide you with several new live video clips. Be sure to check those out as well.
[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Titus-Andronicus-Upon-Viewing-Oregon’s-Landscape-with-the-Flood-of-Detritus.mp3|titles=Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape with the Flood of Detritus]
I recently made this mix for some friends. I burned a few copies and sent them off, hoping that it doesn’t just end up collecting dust in some corner of their place, or thrown on the passenger seat of their car, forgotten forever.
The concept behind this mix is that these are my favorite tracks of the year so far. These songs have all gone into heavy rotation on my iTunes and I think they represent a good cross section of a variety of styles from bands and artists that are quite well known, like Neil Young and Arcade Fire, as well as some lesser known acts like Wonder Wheel, Hurricane Bells and Beach Fossils. I hope that some of these tracks find their way into your iTunes, as I feel that they are all worth at least a listen.
Track 1: “We Used to Wait” – Arcade Fire
From the much anticipated album “The Suburbs” I chose this as the opening track for its driving quality and the slow build. Arcade Fire really does a fantastic job on this album of capturing a universal feeling of the wonderment of childhood and growing up. I wasn’t a fan of their previous albums, but I feel like they finally hit the mark with this one and I think that this is one of the stand out tracks. If you have a chance to check out the video that was created for this song I would suggest doing so, it brings even more emotional depth to the song and makes it truly personal. You can check out the video here.
[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/13-We-Used-To-Wait.mp3|titles=We Used To Wait]
Track 2: “Frankenstein” – Tokyo Police Club
This is the closing track from their most recent release, this summer’s “Champ”. All in all it is a strong album with a lot of memorable tracks. The pulsating guitar line with the slow moving and fuzzed out synth beneath it creates a layered effect that works really well here. This is also a rare instance where I think that the verse is better than the chorus. I discussed this album in detail in a previous post, here. Check out the track, below.
Definitely not a band that I had heard of only a few months ago. Motorifik is a side project from one of the members of Working For a Nuclear Free City and their sound is similar to Phoenix with a little bit more shoegaze and dreampop thrown in. I particularly like the wordless refrain that is drenched in reverb and echo. The drums sound more like explosions with the cymbals creating waves of sound that nearly overtake everything else.
[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/10-FLAMES-ON-THE-OCEAN.mp3|titles=Motorifik – Flames on the Ocean]
Track 4: “Alphaville” – Working for a Nuclear Free City
This comes from their recent double album “Jojo Burger Tempest”, far and away the most dense album I have heard in a long time. There are about a million ideas (not even exaggerating) on the album. This song is no different. We go from a simple, upbeat tune until the bottom falls out, a synth takes the lead, which is then replaced by guitars as the band careens through several different sections. The track moves to about 12 different places before coming to an end. The funny thing is though, and this is true for every track on the album, though the songs may seems overwhelming they are so catchy and well crafted and produced, that they stand up to repeated listens.
[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/04_Alphaville.mp3|titles=Working for a Nuclear Free City – Alphaville]
Track 5: “Helicopter” – Deerhunter
With a chorus that is similar in effect to the Motorifik track this one by Deerhunter is an amazing tune from an outstanding album. Halcyon Digest, released in October, is quite different from Deerhunter’s earlier, more ambient work. The lyrics here add to the emotional charge of the song, which is musically quite simple. Bradford Cox’s voice has a real sense of sincerity and longing here. The album is filled with powerful moments like the ones in this track. For a more detailed review, go here.
Track 6: “Scissor” – Liars
I’ve been following this band for a few years now. Their earliest work was in line with the dance-punk bands coming out of New York in the early 2000’s, but they quickly ditched that sound (as well as their rhythm section) and began creating very heady concept albums including the astoundingly great Drum’s Not Dead. They have moved away from those album oriented ideas with this album, Sisterworld, and the album before. This song brings forward the bands ability to be creepy and frightening while at the same time rocking harder than most bands around. The video is quite crazy as well (though, unfortunately, embedding is disabled).
Track 7: “A More Perfect Union” – Titus Andronicus
It is really difficult to pick a favorite track from this album. Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor is damn near flawless. Musically there is nothing too new going on here, which is not a bad thing. Everything works perfectly. This track clocks in at over 7 minutes, and not a second is wasted. This band, from Glen Rock, New Jersey, rocks with a vengeance. Singer Patrick Stickles screams and growls his deeply personal lyrics through clenched teeth. This track, the opener from The Monitor serves as a call to arms. I talk about the album in far too much detail here.
[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/01-A-More-Perfect-Union.mp3|titles=Titus Andronicus – A More Perfect Union]
Track 8: “Years Not Long” – Male Bonding
This track comes from an album that is full of blistering tracks recorded in the red. It’s nearly all straight ahead garage rock. Fast, loud, noisy, yet the singing is almost sweet and gentle, despite it’s cutting through a whole lot of noise. Earlier in the year this was a standout album and there still isn’t anything that sounds quite like it.
[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/01-Years-Not-Long1.mp3|titles=Male Bonding – Year’s Not Long]
Track 9: “IMHO” – Wonder Wheel
This track could be filed in the “Chillwave” category with others like Neon Indian and Small Black. I really like the raw sound of the recording, the pervasive guitar line and ever present synth that casts a certain relaxed feeling over everything. The rapid fire vocals in the chorus are quite catchy, even if I’m not entirely sure what is being said. There is a looseness in the musicianship present here, where sometimes the drums speed up, or slow down, they aren’t necessarily synched up through the entire song, but it really doesn’t seem to matter. The middle 8 section is a highlight, as is the closing section that slows the tempo down and lets the track breath a little, taking a break from the wall of sound. This is also one very prolific band. I’m sure that by the years end we’ll have another album full of tunes, and I’m personally looking forward to it.
So it’s nearly winter, that doesn’t mean that we can’t pretend that we are at the beach. I really like the interplay of the guitar line and the bass line at the beginning. When the second guitar comes in with a tremolo effect things are pushed even further. This song, as with the rest of the tracks on this album, really capture the ultra-relaxed, sun-soaked laziness of southern California. The band really doesn’t have much to say beyond what is expressed in this song, but it’s fun. They aren’t going to change the world but their songs can make you happy for at least a little while.
Track 11: “Fake Blues” – Real Estate
Similar in style to Beach Fossils is New Jersey band Real Estate. They still have that laid back, west coast, lazy/sunny vibe that is no doubt helped by their echo laden guitars and laid back vocals. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing these guys perform a few times and they are a really tight band. They have taken these songs and really built upon them in their live set. It’s easy to tell that a lot of these tunes are developed from improvised jams and then shaped into solid songs. They have a limited bag of tricks and a very distinctive sound, but they use it quite well.
Track 12: “Make a Deal with the City” – Hurricane Bells
Ok, I’ll admit that the latter half of this mix tape is concerned mostly with songs that sound, to me, “sunny”. I think it has something to do with these past couple of songs have just about the same walking, lulling tempo, a relaxed singing style and a lot of echo. This one comes off of Hurricane Bells’ follow up EP to their debut full-length album Tonight is the Ghost. This is the kind of song that would work well accompanying an early morning drive down the highway as the sun is just rising in an orange tinged sky.
[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/01-Make-A-Deal-With-The-City.mp3|titles=Hurricane Bells – Make A Deal With The City]
Track 13: “Walk With Me” – Neil Young
Neil is one of those artists that seems to be untouchable. He releases album after album after album, some take off, some flop and fall away into obscurity but nobody ever seems to fault him for it. He’s celebrated for his output and his willingness to always try something new. Often he succeeds in creating some sort of new sound, even if that “new sound” is Neil returning to his “old sound” and updating it. This track comes from his collaboration with producer Daniel Lanois. The fascinating thing about this song, as well as the rest of the album, is that it is Neil with just a guitar. He still achieves an interplay of guitar lines and melodies thanks to his unique approach to the guitar combined with Lanois’ production tricks. The guitar here sounds beefy as hell and the way that the vocals were recorded make it sound like Neil is speaking directly to the listener from an authoritative place on high. In my opinion Young’s work is always worth at least a cursory listen. Sometimes the albums don’t hold up but there is always at least one song that is worth the trouble.
Track 14: “Eyesore” – Women
Closing out my mix is the closing track from Women’s latest album Public Strain. This band sounds like nothing else coming out of Calgary, or anywhere for that matter. They seem to be summoning early Sonic Youth and The Velvet Underground. Lots of noise, produced by the instruments and otherwise. The way that this album, as well as their previous self-titled album, were recorded allow for a lot of extraneous sounds to enter into the mix. One can hear the squeaking of the kick drum pedal, doors opening and closing, talking at the beginning or ending of tracks, tape hiss and various other things that are usually scraped out with precision to make an album sound pristine. What this results in is a very haunting and affecting album. The last few minutes of this one in particular are my favorite. The repeated pattern that slowly fades as the energy continues to build just makes me want to listen to the album over and over again.
Musicians are of that breed of individual that wear their emotions on their sleeve. They seem to feel them more intensely than others, or are at least worse at hiding their emotions than everyone else. So many musicians, that didn’t die from a drug overdose (which might be a reaction to feeling emotions in itself), chose to kill themselves after a life of writing desperately painful, heartfelt songs and honest lyrics. Mark Linkous shot himself in the heart, Nick Drake overdosed on his anti-depressants after several years of insomnia and depression, and Elliott Smith possibly stabbed himself in the heart.
Words can be powerful enough, but, combined with music, some artists can really pull a listener in and make them actually feel how they truly feel. It is the purpose of art to make others feel and this collection of lyrics certainly could make even the coldest heart empathetic.
Andrew Bird, “Armchairs” from the album “Armchair Apocrypha”
“You didn’t write, you didn’t call. It didn’t cross your mind at all.”
The despair in this lyric is pretty intense. It conjures images of waiting by the phone, hoping that the one person that you love will just contact you and let you know that they feel the same. The call never comes, your heart sinks in the realization of your unrequited love. The time comes where you have to slowly let all of those built up feelings go, as they were misguided in the first place.
This longing is only heightened by Bird’s arrangement at this point in the song. Considering that it is over 7 minutes long it is really a daring bit of songwriting and arranging. He manages to, just before this point in the song, strip away nearly everything until only his voice remains, whispering into your ear. As soon as the line in question is sun everything comes back after a brief and dramatic build. The solitary upper pedal tone produced by the violin highlights the deep emotional torment plaguing the narrator of the song. Very powerful.
Titus Andronicus, “No Future Part 3: Escape from No Future”, from the album “The Monitor”
“I used to look myself in the mirror at the end of every day, but I took the one thing that made me beautiful and I threw it away.”
This line pretty much speaks for itself. Taken from the perspective of someone who has, apparently, fucked up their life beyond repair, or at least beyond what they think is reparable. There is so much regret that he can’t even stand to face himself anymore. The absolute bottom has been reached, and what is worse is that he knows that things used to be better but is unsure as to whether or not things will return to the way that they once were.
Musically this song is set in 3 general sections. This line appears at the beginning of the 2nd of those sections. Patrick Stickles growls and spits these words out with ruthless efficiency. He knows the pain he feels, and angrily shouts it out through clenched teeth. In an album that is full of emotionally devastating and honest lyrics this one stands out to me as one of the most affecting.
Hurricane Bells, “This Year” from the album “Tonight is the Ghost”
“You can always walk away if you see me comin’. I don’t think about you, I don’t think about you.”
It’s hard to accurately picture this lyric or portray it outside of the context of the song, which moves ably from optimism to pessimism from line to line. There is a sense that two people need to be apart, but no reason is given as to why. Perhaps neither of them completely understands why they need to be apart. It is clear, however, that the narrator is trying to be strong about it, knowing that he is going to go on doing what he needs to do and if that other person happens to come across him then it is up to them to turn around if they don’t want to or can’t deal with the sight of him. Meanwhile he tries to convince himself that he doesn’t think about her. His repeating this immediately, like a mantra is telling of the fact that he really isn’t strong enough to deal with the situation.
The Burning Hell, “It Happens in Florida”, from the album “Tick-Tock”
“Love, it’s like a hurricane. It happens in Florida. It destroys everything.”
The Burning Hell are full of tongue in cheek, self-deprecating lyrics. This one hits close to the heart though. There is a sincerity in this song that seems to want to let the listener know that they are serious this time.
This line is the final lyric of the song that is one continuous build. It is preceded by other lines that are borderline absurd, but after hearing these words the simple chord progression continues, unchanged for 2 more minutes allowing the listener to ponder the gravity of some of those lyrics that they may have previously considered silly. I have already talked about this one in detail here.
Tom Waits, “Georgia Lee” from the album “Mule Variations”
“Be sure to find me. I want you to find me and we’ll play all over, we will play all over again”
Tom Waits is a true artist and prolific songwriter. The grit in his voice lends an emotional power that few are able to muster. The fact that this song is simply his voice and piano with double bass also adds to the desperate loneliness of the subject matter. Abandonment, from family and even from God. There is no way to write a more heart wrenching song. The line here is the definition of devastating, longing for the past that will never return. “Be sure to find me, I want you to find me” speaks of our desire to be wanted and loved by others, but this song doesn’t find any silver lining. Sometimes you will be forgotten. It isn’t ones right to be loved, it can only be a hope and dream and sometimes dreams go unfulfilled. Sometimes there isn’t a silver lining, sometimes there is no salvation for people. Tom Waits is honest enough, and artist enough to speak this truth and I can’t imagine a soul on this Earth not being deeply touched by the setting of this lyric.
When it comes to Titus Andronicus’ “The Monitor” there is no such thing as hyperbole. There simply isn’t a way to describe this album well enough to get across the point of how amazingly complete, perfectly executed, and complex it is. There is so much emotional and musical substance contained within that the album seems to burst at the seams demanding to be heard. For the first time in a long time a band has put out an album that has equal amounts substance and passion. Equal parts rock and roll swagger and punk rock attitude with reckless abandon.
The album takes its name from the first iron-clad warship that was used by the Union forces during the American Civil War. Singer/guitarist/lyricist Patrick Stickles uses the civil war as a concept to which he compares his own life. The Civil War in the United States was an unfortunate circumstance that was ultimately a necessary part in the growth of the country. Stickles sees his own life’s problems—and adolescence—in much the same way. One gets the impression from the outset of the album that he is running from something. He leaves New Jersey for Boston. His intentions are stated in the opening track “A More Perfect Union”, saying “I never wanted to change the world, but I’m looking for a new New Jersey”. It isn’t too very long before he realizes his mistake: “I realized too late that I never should have left New Jersey”. He is running from problems, not willing to discover the root cause. This comes back to hurt him because naturally “[he] thought that [he] had gotten away but they followed [him] to 02143” That being the postal code for Somerville, Massachutsetts which is just outside the city of Boston. Thankfully, through the course of the album he comes out on the other side of it victorious. These songs serve, at once, as a celebration of victory with a warning to others that will surely go through the same trials AND as an expression of his own skepticism about surviving the war that he is essentially fighting with himself.
Though he is fighting with himself first and foremost, he does label “the enemy”. He let’s us know that “the enemy is everywhere!” throughout both “Titus Andronicus Forever” and “….And Ever”. This is after he realizes that moving to Boston was not the answer to his problems, whatever they may be. He never comes right out and says exactly what he did. We just learn bits and pieces, generalities, that paint us the picture of his being ashamed with himself. This becomes clear in “No Future Part III: Escape from No Future” wherein Patrick sings “I used to look myself in the mirror at the end of every day, but I took the one thing that made me beautiful and I threw it away.” Very powerful and honest stuff. We are witnessing him become his own worst enemy.
There is more going on than simply Stickles running from his past. There is a fairly complex concept taking shape. Everything about this album is thoroughly post-modern. Excerpts taken from speeches and letters of important figures involved in the Civil War that introduce and close many of the tracks are juxtaposed with Stickles’ comments about his own state of affairs. Quoting Abraham Lincoln, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family there would not be one cheerful face on Earth,” Stickles quickly segues into “No Future Part III: Escape from No Future” which begins with the lyric “everything makes me nervous, nothing feels good, for no reason…” The feelings of dread and alienation are absolutely palpable, sung in a depressed tone of voice that is recorded to sound even more hollow. He blurs the line even further between the narration and his own commentary by inserting equally well-written declarations into some of the songs. Most noticeable is the end of “A More Perfect Union” where he states he exclaims, “I will be as harsh as truth, as uncompromising as justice. On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation. I am an earnest. I will not equivocate, I will not excuse and I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard!”
Stickles sings with passion and anguish. The element of honesty in his words can not be overlooked. The theme of running away from his problems develops into attempting to cover up his feelings the one way he knows how: drugs. “Smokin’s been okay so far, but I need something that works faster.” He says this right before declaring that he never wants to experience feelings ever again. At this time it is nearly beside the point what happened to him earlier in his life, he is now stepping into a world of despair voluntarily and one gets the impression that he knows exactly what he is in for but simply doesn’t care anymore. It is clear that he is getting really messed up on drugs in order to forget the way that he was treated in the past. The realization that he is only doing to himself what others were doing to him is now making that pain even worse. He doesn’t care about himself and he knows that nobody cares about him either.
References to the past are made, evoking the person that he feels he used to be and contrasts that with the person that he is now. “I surrendered what made me human and all that I thought was true. Now there’s a robot that lives in my brain, and he tells me what to do.” He has given into addiction. This double edged sword is a catalyst. He no longer has any feelings, or cares, but realizes now what he is doing to himself and is not happy with the person he is continuing to become. The opening of “A Pot in which to Piss” contains some of the most telling lyrics that reach back to Stickles’ days in High School. He tells us about his good grades, his winning smile and his pride in the 7” that his band had just released. These positive thoughts are not presented in a way that calls upon the listen to be happy. Instead there is an ominous drone blanketing his speech, letting us know that things aren’t going to stay placid for long. He sets himself up again by stating “You can’t make it on merit, not on merit and merit alone.” Now not only is he preventing himself from having feelings he is excusing himself from any opportunities that he once had. The only clue we get that someone else was involved, or that there was some slighting that happened is via the ultra bitter lyric in “Four Score and Seven”: “But when they see the kind of person that you really are, then you won’t be laughing so hard.”
Alcohol is a prime theme through many songs, most notably in “Theme from Cheers”. Nothing seems to be getting out of hand on the surface. A group of friends, sitting around, getting drunk, talking about the future. There is clearly an underlying pain that keeps creeping through though as described in the lyric, “So let’s get fucked up, and let’s pretend we’re all okay”. Things get darker still when Patrick admits that he needs to “escape from reality” followed by “I really don’t feel like doin’ this anymore.” It is right then that the song lurches forward to dreams about the future and the fond rememberances that they are all going to have, wondering why they were all so worried. “What the fuck was it for anyway?”
This brings into question time as an element used for the concept of this album. Yes, it is ‘kind of’ about the Civil War, which happened nearly 150 years ago, but it’s clearly about Stickle’s own life. But this album is as much about us, the listeners. We are the final link in the story, listening to this album finally brings some of these issues to rest as we are compelled to join the chant of “You will always be a loser” at the close of “No Future Part III: Escape from No Future” grows louder and stronger, becoming a battle cry. We are now a part of this album.
It may seem all very heavy handed to write an album with discrete references to the Civil War. It’s not exactly a popular topic among music fans in their teens and twenties. To be brash enough to compare ones own life to such an epic, bloody conflict strangely works on The Monitor. It works very well. Frighteningly well. Everyone can relate to the urgency and self-importance of growing up, making mistakes, defining oneself, the disintegration of idealism, etc. Life is a war. What’s important to realize here is that Stickles, like the soldier that he seems to be comparing himself to, is fighting. He’s fighting for his life, and he doesn’t want to stop to feel bad for himself. He’s screaming back at himself from the realization of what he is becoming and the possibility of what he could be and what he wants to be.
The post-modern element cannot be denied. From the outset, the first thing we hear is “are we ready to go?” spoken as if unaware that the mics are on. Are we listening to an album that is so set in its concept that the entire thing is pristine, with all the rough edges trimmed away? We are not. We are allowed to experience the music as if we were spectators to a very personal and heart-wrenching speech given directly to us. The repetitive weaving of speech and letter excerpts with the singer-songwriters own words rework a a personal space/time continuum that brings self-awareness to a whole new level. Or, could it be the other way around?
The music is not derivative, but that doesn’t mean that the band is afraid to wear their influences on their sleeves. Bruce Springsteen has been mentioned a million times before when talking about Titus Andronicus. It’s impossible to ignore that the music also shows a very prominent classic punk rock influence while utilizing trusted song elements like a 12 bar blues format and straight up boogie. Honest to goodness solos being traded off without a hint of irony. An important distinction of the Titus punk is that they steer clear of fighting “the man,” instead are caught up fighting with their own past. This album and this band are honest, more honest than I think many bands are. They are, also, fearless.
All of the influences are seamlessly put together, not as a tribute and not as some hipster type of ironic commentary on the music of the past, but instead as a development of these musical elements, showing that they have a place in new rock. The styles flow into and out of each other in a way that makes perfect sense and Titus pulls it off so convincingly that it never comes off as forced. The length of each of the tracks mark a fete unto itself as half of them come in at over 7 minutes long and none of the songs get tired and boring. This band is able to build and turn out new riffs as the minutes tick by. Endings of songs are carefully crafted such that they become beginnings to other songs, gently fading out and becoming new again.
Some songs have several sections to them, such as “Theme from Cheers”” which is divided into 3 distinct parts and are held together wonderfully despite the continuous variations in style. Guitar rock is traded for honky-tonk barroom piano as Stickles imagines himself as an old man reminiscing of the good old days. The band has the ability to start a song at the 10-second mark and continue to grow, even in “The Battle of Hampton Roads,” the 14 minute final track that doesn’t have any extraneous filling and contains some of the albums most dramatic music and shockingly honest lyrics.
The Monitor is a nearly flawless album from a band that is still very young, an absolutely mind-blowing combination of elements. Thoroughly post-modern, thoroughly American in every way imaginable— this band is so good and the writing is so smart it makes you wish that you lived in New Jersey. Now that is saying something.