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

The Black Keys – “Turn Blue”

(Photo Credit: chimes.biola.edu)

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Weight of Love” “Bullet in the Brain”

The Black Keys either like to take corners, or listen to criticism. Their last two albums – “Brothers” and “El Camino” – were distinctly different from what they’d done previously, and both suffered from it. “Brothers” had some quality songs, but it was too long and stuffed with slower tracks. After they found it difficult to play them live, they wrote more upbeat songs for “El Camino,” but they were so focused on the quality that it didn’t seem like they enjoying themselves. “Turn Blue,” however, sees the duo having fun again, and balancing loose and polished.

The first track on “Turn Blue,” called “Weight of Love,” is just ten seconds shy of hitting the seven minute mark. This is pretty different for band who is known for a quick and heavy blues sound. (Look through the Keys prior albums, it’s rare to find a song over five minutes). But it sets the tone of the album. The song is sleepy and a little psychedelic, a drastic departure from the old Keys. It isn’t fast, it’s much more of an extended way to open an album. But Dan Auerbach sure sounds like he’s having fun. The song, as do a few others later, has a distinct classic rock feel to it. Though always resembling garage bands of the 60′s, the Keys have usually stayed away from a classic rock sound. But it gets embraced on “Turn Blue,” and it’s a surprisingly welcome shift. Even the album’s hypnotic cover shows an embrace of a more suspended sound.

The album also benefits from having Danger Mouse on board, producing. He worked on “El Camino,” too, but the relationship between him and the band is more equal. Though still a duo, the band has added distinct bass parts that make a much groovier sound. It’s most evident on the title track and the hit “Fever,” but it adds a fun element throughout.

The album’s only real fault is a handful of songs that still sound a little too prepared. “Year in Review” sounds a little too strained, a little too rehearsed. “It’s Up to You Now,” meanwhile, feels so loose it almost sounds improvised. It’s also possibly the album’s heaviest track, with a booming drum intro. It’s very enjoyable, reminiscent of early Black Keys. They recapture a little of their earlier sound in some of the other heavier songs, like “Bullet in the Brain.” While “Tighten Up” and “Lonely Boy” were heavy in their own right, they felt more directed towards songwriting. The guitar fuzz and the loud, crushing drumming are more ambitious here, less constrained to an album format.

“Turn Blue” has many things working for it. It’s more energetic than “Brothers,” it’s more open than “El Camino,” and it’s just as wide and heavy as “Attack & Release.” A welcome groove makes the album more fun than what we’re used to, without sacrificing any of the volume. And on songs like “Weight of Love” and closer “Gotta Get Away,” it’s easy to tell the band is having fun with the record. “Turn Blue” doesn’t quite stand up to “Attack & Release” and “Thickfreakness,” but it is definitely one of the band’s better records.

If you like this, try: Given that most of the bands that resemble the Black Keys are equally famous, I’ll recommend another fuzzy, bluesy duo – The Creeping Ivies.

-By Andrew McNally