The last time New Jersey indie rockers Titus Andronicus made an album, it turned out to be one of the most ambitious, sprawling and best records of the millennium. ‘The Monitor’ was epic in every sense: wordy, more than an hour long, sprinkled with 14-minute songs featuring multiple movements and laced with an interlocking historical tale about the Civil War. If it wasn’t so aggressively played, and if it featured a spaceship or a winged serpent in its narrative, it could even be called prog.
‘Local Business,’ the band’s third album, is a direct and compact reaction to ‘The Monitor’’s sprawl. There’s no conceptual story tying together the album’s 10 songs, and most of the songs lack a suite-like sweep. (But there are two almost-epic-length songs that run more than eight minutes – one is about an eating disorder, the other is about trying to stop smoking.)
Frontman Patrick Stickles still sounds like his brain is working five times faster than his mouth. Throughout ‘Local Business,’ he spits out lyrics with little regard for meter or the tempo of the music backing them. He’s one of indie rock’s most engaging singers, a working-class dude with a literature professor’s intellect. He cares less about getting it right than making it real.
The opening ‘Ecce Homo’ comes on like prime Replacements, as Stickles takes his usual worldview of everything and everybody sucks. “OK, I think by now we’ve established everything is inherently worthless, and there’s nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose,” he sings. But he’s not a defeatist or your usual nihilism-spewing punk. At its core — beneath all the drinking, death and despair – ‘The Monitor’ was a hopeful record, and ‘Local Business’ isn’t all about celebrating meaninglessness. The guitars even ring out like anthems on ‘Still Life With Hot Deuce on Silver Platter’ and ‘In a Big City.’ And try not singing along to ‘I Am the Electric Man.’
But the general scaling back makes ‘Local Business’ less exciting than ‘The Monitor.’ The Clash-like maritime march of ‘Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape With the Flood of Detritus’ and ‘Food Fight!’’s sleazy New York Dolls glam work more as homages than actual songs, and eight minutes is an awful long time for a so-so tune about an irregular eating problem. Still, when Stickles spikes his misanthropy with punk purpose, the worthless universe he sings about sounds like a wonderful place to be.