For nearly a decade, Titus Andronicus made a career of blasting their violent, unrelenting punk music in dive and underground bars across North America. They were limited to these venues not because of lack of interest but their music and frenetic live shows needed to be contained. The were and still are a detonating stockpile of dynamite. Maybe over the years they’ve developed a bit of claustrophobia because they’ve turned into New York City’s version of The Dubliners on their rollicking fifth album, A Productive Cough.
Meant more to be spun in a crowded bar where the beer flows freely and everyone knows your name, A Productive Cough is a surprise 180-degree turn for the explosive outfit. From the likes of Bob Dylan, John Prine, The Rolling Stones, and Lou Reed, the Patrick Stickles-fronted outfit deliver a mix of classic rock ‘n roll, folk, folk-rock, and old-school southern soul. And like these legends, every song is to be sung with your best mates locked arm-in-arm while clanging your beer glasses with the stranger next to you. It’s not just musically, however, where the biggest change comes. Stickles, who has always been a proficient lyricists, takes his songwriting to a whole new level, offering short stories based around the concept of “home” that double as powerful social and political messages. This is the music of the ’60s revolutionized for 2018.
“Number One (in New York)” kicks things off. Commencing with a piano melody that gives way to a mini-symphony of horns, strings, guitar, and drums, the song is mellow by Titus Andronicus standards. It is, however, bold in its words, as Stickles takes us on a history of New York City and the people who made America. His lyrics are at first a reminder that the Big Apple and the entire country were built on the backs of immigrants. It then transforms into a personal account of his own struggles, where the “American Dream” remains a distant goal and made even more difficult to reach today.
“Repent and pretend every entrance is open to tenants with references.
Declare myself president of the emptiness, say I’m Rembrandt of dancing on the precipice.
Eleven years in and trying to stay relevant.”
Stickles gets more political on the rambunctious, barn-burner “Real Talk”. Like an amped Bob Dylan (or for more contemporary tastes like Langhorne Slim), he points out the misplaced priorities of those in charge. On the hymn-like and solemn “Crass Tattoo”, folk singer Megg Farrell assumes lead vocals, gently singing about a tattoo Stickles got on this 24th birthday in honor of English art-punk band. It’s not the experience, though, that matters, but what the image represents. Like Crass, the image is a silent protest against the oppressors and the status quo, and the flag of a person who will “swing for righteousness”.
But there are still places where friendships are renewed and stories and secrets are shared. For Titus Andronicus, that is the neighborhood deli, which they pay tribute to on the soul-infused, rock ‘n roll ballad, “Above the Bodega (Local Business)”. The track recalls The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen in their primes or the cool intimacy of Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. In other words, it is sure to be a crowd-pleaser no matter if they’re performing this in a punk dive bar or the grandest folk festivals across North America. The biggest ovation, though, will likely be saved for “(I’m) Like a Rolling Stone”, where the band create an “original cover” of the classic Dylan tune. It’s not a true cover, as Stickles has re-written the lyrics from the narrative approach Dylan used to a first-person perspective. In addition, he’s expanded on the notion of being lost. It’s not solely being a man constantly being on the move, but also one about identity.
The punk ethos, though, cannot be fully contained, as “Home Alone” offers a glimmer of the band’s roots. It’s not a full-throttle, ferocious number, and it’s not even a punk tune (more a heavy rock track). It is, however, the album’s edgiest track with Stickles’ vocals, too, approaching the fierce intensity of his younger days. The song is a bit of an outlier, as the LP comes to a close with the gracious folk ballad “Mass Transit Madness (Goin’ Loco)”. While largely introspective, the song personifies the struggles of millions of Americans. The lyrics, “the trio of trains twixt my work and my play”, for instance, is a terrific allegory of the multiple jobs and conflicting desires people hold. Do you take the A train to work or hop on the C train and do as your heart desires? In the chaos that makes up our lives, our homes, our countries today, there is only one answer. Through Titus Andronicus, however, we hope for better days, where home will again be our sanctuary.
Titus Andronicus are Patrick Stickles (lead vocals/guitar), Alex Molini (piano), Liam Betson (guitar/vocals), RJ Gordon (bass/vocals), and Chris Wilson (drums). They are currently on tour, so grab your mates and beer steins and see them in a city near you.
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