Friday, August 21, 2015

Titus Andronicus and Torres

 Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy (Merge)

Meet Titus Andronicus: a band from Bruce Springsteen’s state, named after a bloody Shakespeare play, who has toured with the Pogues and F--ked Up, whose new album, 10 years into their existence, is a 93-minute “rock opera in five acts” (double CD, triple vinyl) about manic depression. (Not surprisingly, considering that cumulative context, that Owen Pallett shows up as one of many guests.)

The Most Lamentable Tragedy is likely to be the most ambitious rock album you’ll hear this year, and not just because of its epic length: unlike, say, F—ked Up’ David Comes to Life, there is a real range of mood, melody and dynamics. There are Celtic interludes, there are shades of Black Sabbath and Black Flag and boogie rock and ballads and lo-fi Daniel Johnson weirdness (as well as a Johnson cover)—hell, there’s even a choral rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.” “Let me show you my fatal flaw,” a lyric that could easily be set to a crybaby emo anthem, is instead a rollicking chorus with crowd sing-alongs in mind—group therapy, if you will. It’s recorded raw and, based entirely on the evidence presented here, Titus Andronicus are no doubt one of the greatest live rock’n’roll bands on the circuit today.

And yet: why do I feel pandered to? Perhaps it’s because I grew up on second-hand classic rock records and I once saw Joe Strummer front the Pogues and I saw early Constantines shows where they channelled their love of Springsteen with their hardcore punk background. Perhaps I feel like Titus Andronicus is for 23-year-olds who’ve never known what a smart, soul-stirring, sweaty rock’n’roll band actually looks and sounds like—or, alternately, for 43-year-olds who’ve worn out their Hold Steady and Weakerthans records.

As the relentless name-dropping in this review might indicate, Titus Andronicus check off a lot of boxes for people who once read Rolling Stone or Trouser Press record guides. Meanwhile, the likes of Sleater-Kinney and Alabama Shakes and Courtney Barnett have also made incredible records in 2015 that draw extensively from the past yet don’t feel stuck in it—that might be because all three write from long-marginalized positions, it might just be a crazy coincidence, or it might just be my own subjective taste. Objectively speaking however, there’s nothing lamentable or tragic about Titus Andronicus: this is a fantastic record (or three). (Aug. 13)

Titus Andronicus play Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern on Oct. 13.

Download: “Fatal Flaw,” “Dimed Out,” “Lonely Boy”

Torres – Sprinter (Arts and Crafts)

For years, the fallout of ’90s grunge manifested itself in the likes of muscular macho dudes in Nickelback or Audioslave, or, on the flipside, musicians who mistake a distortion pedal and sloppiness for soul. Who was going to redeem the real legacy of Nirvana, of the Breeders, of PJ Harvey, of the weirdoes who whispered and howled and had eerie pop melodies under crushing electric guitars?

This year we found the answer. “I like the comfort in knowing that women are the only future in rock and roll,” Kurt Cobain once said, and in 2015 we’ve seen incredible, inspiring rock records by 26-year-old Courtney Barnett, 25-year-old Alicia Bognanno of Nashville band Bully, and now 24-year-old Mackenzie Scott, who performs and records as Torres.

Torres’s second album has a direct lineage to the time period with which her music is closely aligned: Sprinter is produced by PJ Harvey drummer Rob Ellis, and there are more than a few resemblances to Harvey’s 1992 debut Dry—which Scott had never heard before she shipped over to Britain to record with Ellis and Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley.

But enough about everyone else: let’s talk about Torres (whose stage name always reminds me of Bring It On; think about it). Scott was born and raised in Macon, Georgia, escaped to Nashville to start her music career, and now resides in Brooklyn. Her Baptist upbringing looms large over her lyrics—and her vocal delivery; this young woman sings with weary wisdom well beyond her years. “There’s freedom to and freedom from,” she sings, “freedom to run from everyone,” and much of Sprinter is about running away from sour situations and grappling with unresolved emotional baggage.

Sprinter is very much about one woman’s journey, but there’s nothing here that reeks of the confessional or extremely personal; Scott is a mature writer who leaves us layers to peel back that lead to our own interpretations. Her music, too, ranges from the hammering and visceral to delicate and deliberate dramatics—the sparse, haunting and harrowing closer “The Exchange,” recorded solo on a Zoom recorder, is devastating. If she hadn’t made an impression already, that seals the deal. (Aug. 20)

Download: “Sprinter,” “New Skin,” “Strange Hellos”

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