ON APRIL 9, 2011, Titus Andronicus opened for Bright Eyes at the Crystal Ballroom. The bulk of the New Jersey band's set was made up of songs from their excellent sophomore album, The Monitor, which had been released a little more than a year prior, but they closed with a brand-new song written earlier that day. "Upon Viewing Oregon's Landscape with the Flood of Detritus" was mere hours old, written in response to a car crash the band witnessed on I-5 during the drive to Portland. It was songwriting as journalism, an entirely compulsive reaction to a terrible scene.
"There was a quick turnaround on that one," says Titus frontman Patrick Stickles. "It was a very inspiring moment. Terrifying, though inspiring. I didn't actually see the thing go down, but the immediate aftereffect. And people all slowing down to check it out, and all that stuff. So it was breaking news. It was a pretty unique experience for me. Usually [songwriting] happens over a much longer time, much more editing and whittling down. This was just kind of a wham-bam, one-and-done thing."
The song picked up a thread from an earlier song on Titus Andronicus' first album. "Well, it was about sort of a feeling of helplessness, because this awful thing had happened, but there wasn't anything to be done about it on our part. You kind of just have to forget about it and go on with your business," says Stickles. "You know, we've got this other song ["Upon Viewing Bruegel's 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'"], about this painting where we see Icarus falling into the ocean, but it's in quite a small detail. It's a much larger landscape, and he's just popping in in the corner, and it seems to speak to how there are all sorts of tragedies, awful things going on around us all the time, but you don't always notice them. The world keeps turning no matter how awful something is that's going down. So that was brought home once again witnessing this car accident, because there wasn't anything to do but to forget about it and go on and do the show."
The song "Upon Viewing Oregon's Landscape..." might have been written as a type of diary entry, but after only a minor revision—Stickle cut a seventh verse about going to a gas station—the song made the cut onto Titus' third album, the 10-track Local Business. The new album scales back the dramatic heights and ambitions of the colossal, Civil War-themed The Monitor, in favor of meat-and-potatoes rock 'n' roll. Every song boasts a thick wall of guitars, with all the basic tracks recorded live by a newly consolidated five-person lineup.
"We recorded live with bass, drums, and three guitars, and did the singing afterward," says Stickles, whose voice possesses a newfound, decisive power—best heard on tracks like "(I am the) Electric Man." "After listening back to the first two records, I kind of felt like I sounded like a little bit of a whiny baby sometimes... like I was on the verge of throwing up—swallowing a lot of my words, and kind of whimpering a lot. So I wanted to move away from that and project more, put a little more juice into my voice."
Local Business is, despite its theme of keeping things small and grassroots, a mammoth, excellent record with a thunderously huge sound. It's punk rock blown out to classic-rock proportions, songs not so much worming their way into your ears as pushing physically against your sternum. It's a lesson in how to show brawn without being brash, how it's possible to still make intelligent rock 'n' roll with nothing but piles of electric guitar hum. It's also further evidence that Titus Andronicus is one of those magnificent, majestic bands that we'll be telling our grandkids about.
Stickles says that the record was made in response to "just being on the road a lot these past couple years and wanting to do a record that was more indicative of what we do onstage rather than do a big fancy production. So that did inform the songwriting somewhat, as far as wanting to do tunes that rocked and that would be good for a rock band format without quite so many bells and whistles."