Liam Betson- The Cover of Hunter 8.8
The arrival of Titus Andronicus into my musical consciousness, at the age of 14, was incalculably huge. They were a band that made rock music, something I loved but something that also seemed impossibly far away to me, real. The lyrics to songs like “Albert Camus” and “The Battle of Hampton Roads” could not have hit the nail harder on the head, or made more sense. For myself and my fellow, semi-outcast high school buddies, Titus Andronicus served as a mouthpiece of anger, alienation and disenchantment from the seemingly ideal suburbs we were raised in. Although Liam Betson was not their creative brains, that distinction belongs to one Patrick Stickles, he was always in the background, providing texture and immense sonic depth to even the most juvenile Stickles rants.
Whether he was in the band or not (he’s consistently come and gone since they formed,) his presence was, and has always been, felt. As an original member and one of Stickles’ closest allies, he helped form the explosive/rootsy/epic punk sound that Titus has continued to stick with through their ever-revolving carousel of members. Aside from this, he released three albums as Liam the Younger that were almost as impressive as anything he released with Titus Andronicus. Liam the Younger records were far more hushed affairs than Titus records, but they conveyed the same sense of innate curiosity and dismay about the crumbling nature of American suburbs vis a vis Northern Jersey.
Revel Hidden Worlds, his last (and best) album as Liam the Younger, served almost as a companion piece to Titus’ masterpiece, The Monitor, which had been released just two months before. Both records were bathed in the influences of the great American songwriters, without wearing them too much on their sleeves. They were both steeped in personal history, drawing healthily from it without sliding too much into a straight narrative. Listening to both records, almost every moment is transcendent, every step perfectly taken. The songs explode at just the right moment, the choruses have just the right amount of anthemic DNA; everything is just the right amount of epic. So when Betson rejoined Titus in early 2012, it was easy to imagine even greater heights, even though the likelihood of Stickles ever topping The Monitor seemed to be almost zero.
Titus’ 2012 effort, Local Business, was phenomenal in parts, but had the overall feel of a bar band composed of childhood friends, rocking out in their spare time. The production never let the album’s best songs emerge from their somewhat stale shells. The guitars were kept to a minimum, the drums seemed distant. It wasn’t the Titus of old, where hurricanes of guitars and drums would propel Stickles’ songs along with an unstoppable force. As a result, Local Business ended up being a great, but ultimately not classic, record.
So what does this have to do with The Cover of Hunter? Betson has left Titus once again, and for the first time has released an album under his own name. The change in name belies a seeming uptick in confidence of presentation for Betson. The songs stretch out to seven, even eight minutes, the guitars are loud, his singing more assured. The emotioal settings for his songs are still mostly the same: isolation, sadness, detachment and wonder. But Betson doesn’t feel confined in engaging these emotions anymore. The end result is a truly magnificent record, the sort of endlessly relatable epic Titus fans have been waiting years for.
The eight-minute “I Can’t Tell If You’re Looking At Me” opens proceedings, and serves as the album’s “More Perfect Union.” Betson sings of tall trees casting shadows on sheets, throwing you into an all-real place, both emotional and physical, almost immediately. Even when the song develops into a stout rocker, it never loses the sense of intimacy it provides you with at first. Its a powerful connection the record forges, one that’s never broken. On “Pocket Knife,” Betson repeats the lyric “what’s possible” to the point where it becomes a sort of mantra. But at the same time, the way he sings it, its hard to tell if he’s saying “what’s possible” or “it’s possible.” That beautiful dichotomy is presented alongside the song’s perfectly measured guitar pop attack. On “Tie My Hands,” Betson assures you that “I’m an actor too,” again establishing an incredible rapport with the listener. Just as he did so well on his Liam the Younger records, Betson brings himself to your level, so you can see just what he sees, almost through his own eyes. In that way, this record is uniquely and beautifully cinematic.
On “X,” Betson teams up with Stickles once again, and my goodness is it a joy to hear the two shred together again. But before all that, Betson weaves together an impeccably gorgeous song that shows him at his most vulnerable, and his most observant. The song’s build-up, and the subsequent Betson/Stickles guitar playing, is just the cherry on top of it all. “Made From Tin” harkens back the most to Betson’s Liam the Younger days. Not that that’s a bad thing, as Betson is accompanied only by his strumming and some wonderfully placed brass and woodwinds. Even with this album’s more active sound, “Rapture In Heat” is perfectly understated as a closer. A typically lovely song, it flies by. You look up, and the album’s over without any fanfare. Its a fitting end for a record that is both incredibly dynamic and smooth.
Betson, with his most recent tenure in the now-huge Titus, has developed quite the following himself. And just like all things that lose their best-kept-secret status, I get mixed feelings seeing Betson’s record stream on Pitchfork. But once I get over my ridiculous semi-nostalgia, I see that its incredibly awesome that Betson is finally getting his due. Because his rise, coming on the back of this remarkable album, is far from an empty one.