"You call yourself a bowler? More like Ebola!" sneers Patrick Stickles, singer-guitarist for po-mo New Jersey punks Titus Andronicus, trashtalking the competition at Brooklyn's Melody Lanes on a cold January night. "Watch this," he continues, before chucking a strike. That swagger should be familiar to fans of the impassioned fivesome: punny, goofily menacing, maybe a little insecure.
Lately, though, Stickles, 24, bassist Ian Graetzer, 23, drummer Eric Harm, 24, multi-instrumentalist Amy Klein, 24, and guitarist-keyboardist David Robbins, 26, haven't had much to worry about. On the heels of their acclaimed 2008 debut, The Airing of Grievances, and slots opening for Vampire Weekend and Ted Leo, they've just released the astonishing concept album The Monitor (XL), a 65-minute tour de force that conflates the bloody battles of the Civil War with, as Stickles puts it, "the failure to make love work in the emergency of modern life."
As you might expect, he's no stranger to that particular battleground. After a move to Boston didn't work out, Stickles began writing songs inspired by the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War. "[My ex-girlfriend] went to bed at a normal hour," he recalls. "I'd stay up late watching that movie and thinking about New Jersey. Then she gave me the boot, and I shat all these feelings out -- and it became our record."
The Monitor, which Titus is supporting with a tour this spring, teems with snarling bar rock that recalls a drunker Hold Steady. Fittingly, that band's Craig Finn shows up, portraying Walt Whitman on one of the album's many spoken interludes. Other guests include the Vivian Girls' Cassie Ramone and Ponytail guitarist Dustin Wong, who performs a burning solo on the 14-minute "The Battle of Hampton Roads."
Back at the alley, Stickles is giddy. After learning that his team won the night's games by a total score of 360 to 350, he can't resist one more dig. "Better luck next time," he blurts at his opponent. "360, man -- that's 'cause it's coming full circle!" He should know.
LISTEN: Titus Andronicus, "A More Perfect Union"(DOWNLOAD MP3)