Titus Andronicus – “The Most Lamentable Tragedy”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Lonely Boy” “Dimed Out” “More Perfect Union”

One of the things that made Seinfeld so great was a general lack of continuity – you can flip on any episode on TBS at 3pm or am and jump in. Sure, there’s recurring jokes – the person getting washed behind the sheet at the hospital George’s mom is in is my favorite. But each episode is pretty standalone, even for a sitcom. So it’s weird that Titus Andronicus stands by their Seinfeld references, in a way. Their fourth album, “The Most Lamentable Tragedy,” is an album that links all three of their previous albums up. It continues the “No Future” trend from “Titus Andronicus” and “The Monitor,” but left off of “Local Business.” One of this album’s best songs, “More Perfect Union,” is a reference to “A More Perfect Union,” from “The Monitor.” And “I’m Going Insane (Finish Him)” is a lyrical cover of their own “Titus Andronicus vs. the Absurd Universe (3rd Round KO)” from “Local Business.” There’s even the Seinfeld reference, a “Hello, Newman” shout on “Lonely Boy.”

Look, I love Titus Andronicus. I’ve long called them “America’s best rock band.” A picture I took of them at the Brooklyn Bowl has been the background on my phone for a few years. I didn’t ‘stand by them’ when they released “Local Business” – it’s one of my very favorite albums, I listen to it in full nearly once a week. So when they announced a 29 song, 93+ minute rock opera, I went into cardiac arrest. And as I was staring at it after it came out, before I listened, I thought – “there’s few bands that could really pull this off, and I’m not sure +@ even can.” “The Most Lamentable Tragedy” isn’t their strongest album, but in terms of ambition and effort, it is indeed unmatched.

The album is separated into five acts, much like Foxygen’s “…And Star Power” last year. The opera follows Our Hero, as he meets his doppelganger and struggles with manic depression, a reflection of Patrick Stickles’ own struggles. Stickles has reflected before – “The Monitor” reflected his depression, where my favorite +@ song “My Eating Disorder” details his selective eating.

There’s a lot to take in on the album, at 29 songs and over an hour and a half long. Given that the band has always centered itself equally on music and lyrics, there’s rarely one more worthy of attention – and that comes through the most on songs that feel like they could’ve been cut. It runs too long, even as an art project, and the average-lengthed songs start to bleed together a bit. There’s also a surprising number of them – although two of the songs are over nine minutes, and thirteen are under two minutes, most of the other tracks are between 3:00 and 4:30, unexpected for a band comfortable in the 5:00-6:30 range. Some songs, like “Dimed Out” and “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” feel zipped-up and perfectly sliced because of it, but some songs feel underdeveloped in that range.

The album keeps things interesting by engulfing all of Patrick Stickles’ influences, rather than focusing on one. Early on, especially on “No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant” and “Lonely Boy,” the band directly channels their inner Springsteen. As the album gets more indulging, the band expands influences, from hardcore (“Look Alive”) to the Pogues (“A Pair of Brown Eyes”) to the traditional (an unexpected “Auld Lang Syne”). There’s a lot going on here, and it gets switched up so consistently that it feels like where in the manic itself.

“The Most Lamentable Tragedy” is a flawed but strong album. Just when it starts to lag, it winds up again and hits you with another punk blast. And it’s needlessly but joyously self-indulgent, keeping all of the band’s linked narratives going. It’s punk, it’s indie, it’s gospel, it’s anything you’d imagine Titus Andronicus to be. It succeeds just because it has the sheer audacity to demand it so. “The Most Lamentable Tragedy” is a beast, and with another dense, lengthy concept album under their belt, it’s safe to say we have no idea where +@ are going next. Their next album might equate struggles with body identity to stories of ancient gods, or it might be a Bon Jovi covers album. It’s tough to say, and that’s what makes +@ America’s best rock band.

If you like this, try: self-immolation

-By Andrew McNally

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Fucked Up – “Glass Boys”

 

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Echo Boomer” “DET”

The most immediately jarring thing about Fucked Up’s fourth proper full-length is it’s running time. At 44 minutes, it’s barely half the length of their previous album, “David Comes to Life.” It’s only ten songs, and only three are over five minutes. This isn’t to say Fucked Up are taking a backseat after the success of their last album – instead they’re taking a whole new approach. “David Comes to Life” was an unequivocally ambitious rock opera with many characters and four parts. And it was so good that they forced publications like The Chicago Tribune into not only putting a hardcore album in their 2011 “Best Of” lists, but finding ways to blur the name. It did leave the band in an accidental awkward position though – as one of the most unique and unconventional bands in music, they were suddenly mentioned in the same breath as bands like Foo Fighters, who they’d previously spoken out against. So to continue fighting from the inside, they released “Glass Boys” – their attempt at a skewering, conventional rock record.

First off, it doesn’t really work. Asking Fucked Up to release a typical rock record is like asking Charlie Kaufman to direct the next “Transformers” movie – it just isn’t going to be as dumb as it should be. “Glass Boys” is still littered with narratives, references to mythology and dark, convoluted poetry. And furthermore, Fucked Up is a hardcore band at heart. Even if the band has never been as raging as most hardcore bands, Pink Eyes’ vocals are still as throaty and guttural as before. They’re just too ambitious to try to pull off a normal rock record – even if it’s not done seriously. This is the band that’s doing “Year of the…” EP’s in between albums, with 10+ and 20+ minute songs. Fucked Up are too imaginative, and exist in too many genres, to really pull this off.

So what results is a batch of moderately regular songs. On one hand, it’s interesting to hear Fucked Up go back to some traditional hardcore roots, with songs that are easier to wrap your head around. It’s all high energy, still. On the other hand, it does sound like a bit of a failed experiment. The biggest case is on “Warm Change,” where they mimic classic rock by ending with a pointless, meandering guitar solo and a keyboard fade-out. It’s a bit of a parody, sure, but one that doesn’t fit alongside any other song on the album.

But still, if you take the album at a base level and don’t look at it like a certain concept, it’s still a strong hardcore album. “Echo Boomer” is a raging intro to the album, and songs like “Touch Stone,” “Sun Glass” and “DET” are just as loud and abrasive as you’d expect from Fucked Up. And in some ways, their ambition works – the drums and guitars were recorded differently. Jonah Falco recorded four different drum tracks throughout the album, and the guitars are layered and smoothed out to make more of a drone noise than a lead melody. They’ve released a whole alternate version of the album, with half-time drums. Even at their least ambitious, Fucked Up is still incredibly ambitious. So even if this is a grand idea that provides little fruitful, it’s still a solid record from the most inventive band in music. The fact that Fucked Up even thought to make the exact opposite of their previous album shows they’re still at the top of their game.

If you like this, try: Tonally, Fucked Up has always been a tough band to place. Hardcore-inspired rock, built for the indie crowd – there’s no specific audience. So thematically, I recommend two of my favorite albums: Titus Andronicus’ “Local Business,” where the band was similarly finding a way to make a post-magnum opus album, and Queens of the Stone Age’s “Songs For the Deaf,” an earlier attempt at an overly-regular rock album.

-By Andrew McNally

The Menzingers – “Rented World”

(Photo Credit: Noisey)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “I Don’t Wanna Be An Asshole Anymore” “Rodent”

*** Let me start, as I have a few times before, by saying that this review should be taken with a grain of salt, as my love for the Menzingers runs deep enough that it’s impossible for me to stay unbiased as I shriek and clap listening to their new album. ***

The only downside to releasing a heralding, magnum opus of an album is figuring out how to follow it. Look at the most magnum opus-y album of this generation: Titus Andronicus’ “The Monitor.” (Okay, it’s probably “Yeezus,” but for the sake of conversation). The band followed it up with a significantly more straightforward and approachable album, “Local Business” (that’s just as good and I do and will always defend it). But this is tougher for pop-punk group the Menzingers, because 2012’s “On the Impossible Past” is simply a “magnum opus” because of how good it is. Listening to it for the first time is as memorable as graduating or getting married. The band accidentally created a masterpiece. So the only way to follow up an album as good as it is to just stick to the formula.

“Rented World” opens with a track called “I Don’t Wanna Be An Asshole Anymore.” It starts with a shrieking guitar and frantic energy, as any pop-punk opener should. But the song seems to slowly cool down, giving way a few times to just vocals. The follow-up, “Bad Things,” is strong but a lot more moderately-paced. This is how the Menzingers operate – their energy often feels forced, like they don’t quite have the heart to give it their all. And it fits them well, given their often lackluster-y existential lyrics. The album still has a ton of energy to it, but as with “Past,” the emotion comes first. Pop-punk has changed. This isn’t pizza, jorts and hating this town, this is death, addiction and overwhelming apathy.

For those playing along at home, the second track is indeed called “Bad Things.” “Past” had “Good Things” and “Nice Things,” and even those ironically-named times have taken a turn for the worse. While the album isn’t as interesting musically – it’s straighter, and it isn’t self-referential – it might just be even darker lyrically. “Past” was a cohesive album, because it told reflective stories. “Casey,” “Freedom Bridge,” “Nice Things” and “Gates” all tied specific memories to specific, lost people. But where that album was outward, this one is inward. There’s exceptions on both albums, of course, but “Rented World” is a look at all that’s wrong inside. The album is peppered with beautifully devastating lines like “I am only bad news / For you,” on “Rodent,” and “If everyone needs a crutch / I need a wheelchair” on first single and Key Track runner-up “In Remission.” “I know where your heartache exists,” “Nothing feels good anymore.” If “Past” was a sad look at a memory that can’t be relived, “World” is an honest look at a present that can’t be changed.

The Menzingers need to stop hogging talent. Sure, they’re a pop-punk band, they’re not the most talented group. But the band shares two great, similar singers in Tom May and Greg Barnett, and somehow, sharing rough lyrics between two singers deepens their impact. This album’s only real fault is lacking the arc that made “On the Impossible Past” the overnight success it is. But again, it’s an extremely tough act to follow. They do branch out just a little – “Transient Love” is a legit slower song, and almost a minute longer than any song on it’s predecessor. And it’s followed by “The Talk,” a >2:30 kicker that, at times, sounds more like traditional early 00’s pop-punk than their own moody blend. Otherwise, “Rented World” is simply a collection of songs meant to beat you up inside, and it certainly succeeds. It’s going to forever be compared to “Past,” but it doesn’t need to be; it’s a separate, confident and viable album that’s going to be remembered nearly as fondly. It’s crisp and concise; inspired and emotional, and loud as all hell. Effortlessly great songs like “Hearts Unknown” and “In Remission” prove that the Menzingers know exactly what they’re doing. So don’t fear a mediocre follow-up, and prep your heart and stomach in advance.

If you like this, try: This is a tough one, but as mentioned before, I defend Titus Andronicus’ “Local Business” to death. It’s another example of capitalizing on an insurmountable predecessor in a more straightforward but equally inspired manner.

-By Andrew McNally