The Airing of Grievances
[Troubleman Unlimited; 2008]
Before writing the bulk of his legendary canon of plays and sonnets, William Shakespeare penned the charmingly flawed revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus. Due to its laughable bombast and over-the-top violence, its influence on contemporary culture has emerged mainly in dark comedies like Sweeney Todd or "South Park", and many Shakespeare scholars still balk at seriously analyzing the work. Of course, all these factors make the play a perfect moniker for an indie band as violent, overblown, and irreverent as Glen Rock, New Jersey's Titus Andronicus.
Despite its title's implied politeness, The Airing of Grievances qualifies more as existentialism wrapped in an anti-suburban screed. Frontman Patrick Stickles howls with anguish way beyond his 22 years, often cramming lyrics into tight spaces just to make sure he gets the last word in. Plus, as anyone who's heard five seconds of this band already knows, he sounds like Conor Oberst screaming from the bowels of hell. However, to peg these guys as "emo" would be sadly inaccurate. Sure, torn diary page scribbles clutter Airing's heart-on-sleeve, fist-in-air anthems, but the drama's more Boss than Bright Eyes, fueled by blue collar frustration and, most notably, beer.
So far Titus's rowdy live shows have generated the most buzz around the group; check your local listings, they're probably playing in a friend's tool shed near you. Those small venue acoustics translate wonderfully on the band's debut, its muffled mixing reminiscent of listening to a bar band from the men's room. Yet this inebriated aesthetic only intensifies the literary streak running through Stickles' easily excitable veins. A brusque "fuck you!" cues the band on Pogues-like opener "Fear & Loathing in Mahwah, NJ", but once the rubble clears it's a villainous quote from Titus Andronicus's Aaron the Moor that most elegantly expresses Stickles' bile: "I have done a thousand dreadful things/ ...And nothing grieves me heartily indeed/ But that I cannot do ten thousand more." As if the dreary title and playful, mock-optimistic guitar riffs of "No Future Part II: The Day After No Future" aren't enough to wrench your soul, the song ends with the closing passage from Albert Camus' The Stranger, in which the narrator wishes to be jeered by a large crowd on the day of his execution.
Of course, none of these highfalutin' shout-outs will grab your ear as powerfully as the demonic E Street Band arrangements, rife with constant builds and breakneck rhythms. Nearly every track here starts innocently, usually with a straightforward eighth-note strum or folksy melody unaware of the beating it's about to go through. Whereas a band like Arcade Fire likes to gradually crescendo to enhance the dramatic oomph, Titus can't enjoy that luxury-- not when Stickles is already screaming by the second lyric. Fortunately the band finds unconventional ways to heighten its music, like "Arms Against Atrophy", which waits three-quarters of its duration to unveil a killer, song-altering guitar riff, or the outro on "Upon Viewing Brughel's 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'", when the band corrals a maelstrom of stop-start solos into a steady, almost rockabilly groove.
Three-minute war cry "Titus Andronicus" best encapsulates Airing's pathos, and serves as a fitting primer for an otherwise hefty and (initially) inscrutable album. Bemoaning the creativity-crushing effects of his environs ("I'll write my masterpiece some other day"), Stickles imagines a conformist nightmare of no sex, no booze, and no cigarettes, blurting "fuck everything, fuck me" in between two verses just for effect. As Airing's most memorable moment, the song's taunting chorus maxim "Your life is over!" becomes to these guys what "In the name of love!" was for early U2. On a lyric sheet, Titus Andronicus may appear to espouse the sort of wrist-cutting histrionics emo's typically lambasted for, but the magic lies in the band's oddly enthusiastic grass roots delivery. They've studied their philosophy and found that life actually is pointless, so why not go down swinging?
- Adam Moerder, April 25, 2008