In the middle of June 2011, hundreds of people converged on Redwood Art Space, a cramped storefront unit in an aging, out-of-the-way strip mall on the outskirts of Wilkes-Barre in the heart of northeastern Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley. The crowd ranged in age from fresh-faced, guileless early teens to preening, collegiate twenties to paunchy, resigned forties, and in affect from angular-coiffed mall-punk to Polo- and Nike-bedecked straight-edge hardcore to menacing on-probation street tough. They had come to celebrate the release of Shed, the debut album by Title Fight, a local melodic hardcore-punk band formed in 2003 by bassist-vocalist Ned Russin, drummer Ben Russin, and guitarist-vocalist Jamie Rhoden when the three were in middle school.
In the intervening eight years the band had added a second guitar player, Shane Moran, and released a succession of demos and EPs. At some point, roughly around the release of Kingston, their 2008 Lifetime-inspired seven-inch named after the Wilkes-Barre suburb where they were raised, Title Fight had started to get busy. At first, the exposure had been regional — their pictures in the city paper, their local shows drawing notably large numbers of kids. Eventually, it had gotten bigger than that. By the end of 2009, they had secured slots on tours with the likes of New Found Glory and H20, some of the biggest names on the uppermost echelon of modern punk rock. They had, in other words, embarked upon a path that would lead inexorably to their becoming a big, nationally known band.
And yet here they were — in the midst of such an ascent, at a point in their lives when the trappings of celebrity are at their most alluring — here they were marking the release of their debut full-length by playing a self-promoted show in a drab, cigarette-smoke-stained erstwhile retail space with no air conditioning. They would perform that night between four sweating gypsum walls and under a sagging asbestos ceiling in a room whose square-footage would allow admittance of no more than a couple of hundred paying customers, and whose floor plan lacked a bar, a VIP area, and even so much as a ladies bathroom. Appearing as openers on the evening’s bill were Cold World, War Hungry, and Dead End Path, homegrown hardcore bands specializing in high-volume ferocity inspired to the point of slavish obsession by the legendary New York City hardcore scene of the 1980s.
To understand Title Fight, what makes them special, what inspires uncommon loyalty within their rapidly growing fanbase, one must understand, first, why the Shed release show could happen and, second, why it did happen. At no point in their first eight years had Title Fight’s four members lost touch with the DIY hardcore scene in which they had come of age. Nor had they even momentarily ceased to regard themselves as card-carrying members. In return, the DIY hardcore scene, a subculture with an unmatched aptitude for detecting hidden agendas, threw its support behind the band to an extent that is frankly unprecedented.
“This has been something that I’ve thought a lot about over the past couple of years. Where does Title Fight fall in hardcore?” Ned Russin says. “We’re all hardcore kids, we all go to hardcore shows, and we’re inspired by hardcore bands, so are we not a hardcore band? I feel like the hardcore scene has our backs, and if it does it’s because it senses that we’re always going to be the same people and that we’re not doing anything that we ourselves, as hardcore kids, wouldn’t back.”
Many credibility-seeking frontmen of many credibility-bereft bands have attempted to make similar cases. But Russin and his bandmates are among the very few who in saying they’re down know it to be true. It’s simply a fact that Title Fight is a band for which integrity is not a pose but second nature. And that means something. People notice that. Have noticed it.
“The only reason we’re in the position we’re in is because we had a really good example set for us in the scene we come from, in Wilkes-Barre,” Shane Moran says. “Everything’s moved really fast for us recently. There are all these industry professionals you get involved with who are trying to get their hands on a piece of the pie. So we’re always trying to bring our friends out on tour, and everything from music videos to T-shirt designs to album artwork — all that labor has been kept within the small, insular world of our friends.
He goes on: “The bands that I like, you sort of get a feel for their personality beyond their music. You’re able to develop an understanding of where they’re from, what they’re like, who they came up with, and who they surround themselves with. Someone like Ned could tell you the weirdest little piece of minutiae about Youth of Today or another one of his favorite bands. And I feel like we have an obligation to make that information available to the world, so that kids who might want to know and who might be fascinated by it can find out.”
* * *
Shed was a culmination record. In listening to it one might very well have pictured the four members of Title Fight, who, to their parents’ horror, have dropped out of college to tour full-time, at the summit of a mountain so tall it had taken eight years to climb. It drew on influences as diverse as Jawbreaker, Turning Point, Gorilla Biscuits, and Brand New. It had been produced by Walter Schreifels, one of their heroes. It seemed to contain in its sounds and words everything the band knew of the world, along with every nostalgic, terrified, confused, and euphoric feeling they had ever felt. How is anyone supposed to follow that up?
A year passed. They toured the world. In the late spring of 2012, they had a month away from the road. They promptly entered the studio and recorded 11 songs with Will Yip, who had engineered Shed. Mere weeks later, they left the studio, having completed their second full-length album, Floral Green. Just like that.
“Shed had been a really time coming, I feel like,” Moran says. “We didn’t want to do the first full-length until we felt like we were prepared, like we were ready to give the world a definitive release from us. And now that we’ve kind of gotten that out of our system, we’re all just really excited about the opportunity to make music, to make another record. It’s what we love doing — it’s all we want to do — so there was no better time. We were ready.”
Floral Green (out on SideOneDummy Records in Septmber 2012) is a continuation record, in both the if-it-ain’t-broken sense and the onward-and-upward sense. The songs continue to drive, the singing continues to be heartfelt, almost frenzied, the hooks continue to soar, and the hardcore-punk influences continue to be central. But the songwriting, which has progressed immeasurably, now incorporates a strain of textured, emotional art-rock that listeners of a certain age and predilection will associate with labels like 4AD, Creation, and SST. Longtime fans will note that the band has kept intact its unbroken record of blockbuster first tracks; this time it’s “Numb, But I Still Feel It,” which is as much Swervedriver as it is Naked Raygun. Elsewhere: “Head In The Ceiling Fan,” with its Slowdive-like swirl, and “In-Between,” which sounds like The Sundays meets Quicksand.
As with everything Title Fight does, has done, and will continue to do, Floral Green is an exercise in earnestness, of playing music and singing words that express, with absolute pinpoint precision, what is felt, and doing so in unguarded, unmediated, and unironic terms. The album’s lyrics provide a blow-by-bow account of human feeling in all its complexity and, it has to be said, in all its ugliness. They reveal the frightening-to-plumb depths of resentment, self-doubt, cowardice, and duplicity that we all know are somewhere inside us.
“I really strive to be honest in my writing, but that is something I always struggle with,” Russin says. “I think this is by far the most straightforward stuff I’ve written. I’m really proud of that, but at times I’m worried about people knowing how I feel.”
Also, and not incidentally, the album contains talk of loving homeland and family, of gratitude for life’s opportunities and its occasional swells of transcendent happiness. Ultimately, Floral Green is a leading-by-example repudiation of cynicism and narcissism. It amounts to a persuasive argument in favor of presenting yourself exactly as you are. Exactly as you’ve always been.
“This record is a time capsule of where we’re at in our lives and the world we come from,” Moran says. “We want to put all that out into the world because it’s those things that set us apart and make us interesting. We feel a responsibility to the kid somewhere out there who by seeing Title Fight will have their eyes opened to something more — and I don’t mean just by becoming a fan of Title Fight, but by going beyond us, to dig deeper into the music they listen to and hopefully discover something that’s really meaningful and really special to them.”