. . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead feel like they've been around for ages and well, they have. I remember reading about them some ten years ago in a Rolling Stone recap of South By Southwest. Just the name itself sounded cool. Picking up on their recorded material with their second album, Madonna, I've been lucky to see them live twice (right after Source Tags & Codes came out and a few months before Worlds Apart came out). Yet being a Trail of Dead fan for the last couple of years has become a very defensive thing with their post-Source Tags & Codes material.
Source Tags & Codes, the band's 2002 major label debut, came out a time when people were convinced that dense modern rock was becoming mainstream again. Records by the Strokes, the White Stripes and At the Drive-In released in the previous two years came out to critical raves and legitimate enthusiasm by the buying public. Yet when Matt LeMay's 10.0 score of Source Tags & Codes appeared on Pitchfork, there was some understandable suspicion. How could a new record be considered essential for a score so often reserved for older, time-tested material? Describing the album's grand finale (complete with a strings-laced reprise), LeMay wrote, "The impact is immediate: you know without a moment's doubt that you have just heard something that is absolutely classic." Looking back, you could say this was the final salvo for this era's mindset.
Source Tags & Codes' follow-up, Worlds Apart, arrived in January '05. To me, I felt that the band had made a much better record than Source Tags & Codes. Even though I really dug Source Tags & Codes, I felt the band had a better grasp of songwriting this time out. Instead of depending on simple loud-quiet dynamics and an echo-drenched sound, the band made an upfront epic with really thought-out songs. Yet trying to convince people of the album's merits went mostly unfounded. Simply, people had moved on to other things, even as early as summer 2002. The hope that dense modern rock could unite doe-eyed teenage music fans and jaded 20/30-somethings didn't catch on this time.
Though favorably reviewed in a number of major publications, Pitchfork felt like they were on a smear campaign with Worlds Apart. Nick Sylvester's 4.0 review reeked of an overly-critical, "Why does this matter right now?" vibe. This kind of piss-taking is something I find so disheartening about being a fan of music who wants to share what I like. Nevermind the merits of the songs or the songwriting itself; how does this matter with the populist ideas of right now? Well, that's not how I process music. I know, different strokes for different folks. But there's something to wonder about when it seems like people skip town on something they previously held in extremely high regard.
This week sees the release of Trail of Dead's new record, So Divided. Matt LeMay's 5.5 review reads like his feet are on the ground as compared to his Source Tags & Codes review. I don't agree with a number of his points (especially his shots at Worlds Apart), but he doesn't seem like he's going to town with nitpicking either. Other publications, like Rolling Stone, have given the album favorable, but not earth-shattering kudos. But the deal is, there is no hopeful hype that substance-filled rock music is going to blow the tepid crap out of the mainstream's water stream right now. In other words, the record has to speak for itself as a record instead of a statement about post-whatever society. So does the band sink or swim on So Divided? Signs point to both in my mind.
I don't hate So Divided, but I'm not really that bowled over by it. "Stand in Silence," "Wasted State of Mind" and "So Divided" are great tracks, yet there's some very uneven stuff on here. Sometimes I wonder if they're trying to pull my leg. The one-two of "Naked Sun" and a cover of Guided By Voices' "Gold Heart Mountain Top Queen Directory" feels misplaced. They feel like b-sides plopped in the middle for fun. I appreciate the band for going further outside their previous work, but that doesn't always mean it's something I'm going to like. "Eight Day Hell" feels more like a Polyphonic Spree song, but I actually dig it. The atmospheric, country-tinged "Witches Web" feels more like AM/Being There-era Wilco, but I also dig this. The rest feels so-so, something I had yet to feel about Trail of Dead's music.
Tying the whole record together, So Divided sounds like a straight-up rock record, Trail of Dead-style, not an epic record, Trail of Dead-style. I think the band is doing the right thing even if the results aren't as strong as what I've heard before.
Have I learned anything by seeing the whole praise-and-destroy of this mighty Austin-based band? Plenty. I could be all cynical and bitter about this, but I choose to think even more about the things that I really like. In the case of Trail of Dead, they're staying on the course they've always stayed on even if critics say otherwise. So Divided is not going to make people lose their proverbial minds, but at least it's a decent effort to not be firmly tied into a noose they can't loosen.