And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead
n album that succeeds a career-defining record often falls prey to one of the following two criticisms: 1) the new album ventures too far from the compositional techniques and achieved sound that was definitive of its older sibling’s success and is, consequently, frowned upon for not sticking with the tools that built the band’s reputation, or 2) a band cleaves to and re-utilizes a musical vibe that its successor already mastered and, thus, the band is criticized for its failure to evolve.
This duality of follow-up criticisms—either chastising bands for their undesired metamorphoses or for their failure to fulfill an expected metamorphosis—leads one to believe that, in general, a follow-up album is unjustly picked on and would receive a fairer critique if digested as a separate entity. Take the Liars’ We Were Wrong So We Drowned: would their distancing from dance-punk have been frowned upon if they hadn’t already created their own take on the temporary genre? At the opposite end of the spectrum, would the Strokes have been abused by some for creating another set of eleven catchy pop songs if they had not done so two years earlier? Sadly, the heir to a great album is often damned, no matter which direction it heads
Thus, Worlds Apart creates a massive temptation for the music journalist to lump Trail of Dead into one of these two archetypes. It captures Trail of Dead in the midst of a drastic production and compositional shift, as the band incorporates a healthy dose of orchestral accompaniments, “Great Gig In the Sky”-sounding backup female vocals, and acoustic piano figures into their predominantly guitar-driven formula that was used and universally loved in Source Tags and Codes. It would be quite easy to blame all the flaws within Worlds Apart on the these attempted displays of musical ‘maturation’—and the truth be told, the album is far from perfect—but it is not Trail of Dead’s new sound that cripples the LP.
The tracks that do dip into new musical waters—not necessarily uncharted by modern music but not yet explored specifically by Trail of Dead- are the better executed, more laudable sections of the album. “Overture” introduces the band’s many new facets, beginning with a syncopated, low-octave piano riff before climaxing into what my roommate understandably mistook as a classical piece from an epic blockbuster adventure (“are you listening to The Patriot soundtrack?”). Other songs, such as the piano-driven “Summer of ’91,” which favorably recalls Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” the multiple movements of “Will You Smile Again,” and the closer, “City of Refuge,” a jazzy, upbeat number fully equipped with electric piano and “I am the Walrus” string sweeps, are quite removed from past Trail of Dead, yet are well-played and produced, and, most importantly, enjoyable.
It’s the tracks that sit closest to the old Trail of Dead that make up a majority of Worlds Apart’s uninspiring moments and also ruin any cohesion that could have otherwise been attained through the heart of the album. While Trail of Dead has always appeared to be a musical force that could, someday, bridge indie (post-)punk and mall pop-punk, leading single “Worlds Apart,” “Classic Art Showcase,” and, to a lesser extent, “Rest Will Follow” abandon any common ground and cross over to the dark side of modern radio punk. In these tracks, Conrad Keely ignores his subdued vocal delivery, often opting for straining, sometimes whiny melodies that have only a degree of separation from those other corporate label (literal) punks who, in the past two years, decided avant-garde black attire is the new Jinco-Hurley t-shirt tandem.
The amazing guitar acrobatics that spanned much of Trail of Dead’s previous material are also sorely missed. Whereas before, Reese and Keely’s chiseled guitar dueling sounded like Lee Ranaldo’s take on Tom Verlaine licks, much of the guitar work in Worlds Apart is replaced by undefined, Turbo Rat-overdriven sludge. Perhaps, the emphasis on guitar prowess was displaced by the additional focus on wall-of-sound production which—although often nicely executed in some songs (“Overture” and “Summer of ‘91”)— also, unfortunately, includes gimmicky overdubs of a wailing women and Keely cussing out laughing children.
But despite the overall disappointment of the album, fans of the ‘Dead ought not be alarmed. The Austin, Texans have been on an upward climb since their debut and there’s no reason to believe Worlds Apart isn’t merely the awkward adolescent of their musical lives. They seem tired of running solely in post-punk tennis shoes and are trying now trying on a pair of progressive penny loafers on for size. In the next couple years, it is safe to say Trail of Dead will continue to work hard, strive for new ideas, and, hopefully, hone in on a sound that will add another amazing album to their impressive catalogue. This one isn’t it.
Reviewed by: Kyle McConaghy
Reviewed on: 2005-01-26