For all you …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead-heads who considered 2005’s World’s Apart a gigantic harsh to your mellow, well I’ve got some news for you….their new one, So Divided, is a tiny bit better. So shake off those bad pop vibes and get ready to rock out, kind of but not really, with the new and confused Trail of Dead!
To put things in drastically simple terms: …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead slapped the sleepy masses with 2002’s Source Tags and Codes. The album put them on the radar, and in doing so, animated their most tucked away dreams. They wanted Top 20 airplay, and why not…if people were sheep then well why couldn’t the sheep at least get good music pumped into their fields? A couple years and tours passed and the band released World’s Apart, which was their application for the mainstream. The mainstream phoned back and left a message: “Um, this message is for that band with that really long name….we’d really love to have you but there’s like a couple hundred, er, thousand….a couple hundred-thousand rock bands, you know, that are like younger and um more impressionable and stuff. Happy trails.” Shaken up about the whole thing, in 2006 AYWKUBTTOD chopped off some words from their title, leaving TOD and doing for band name’s what Metallica did for hair-styles, ready to show the world that they haven’t disappeared….they’ve just changed form. Their release, So Divided, isn’t their Golden Ticket, and they don’t expect it to be anymore.
So Divided is most notable for its awkwardness. “Naked Sun” is comprised of a plain ol’ dirty blues riff, simpler than anything they’ve done before – that’s not the problem. But the problems with this song are many. First, Keely’s voice isn’t gruff enough, sending the track immediately over to Karaoke Land. Second, there is a breakdown section where suddenly injected brass instruments freakout…kind of hip, but 100 percent unsubstantiated. There is nothing in Trail of Dead past or present that contextualizes this maneuver. Thirdly, at the place where the song should end, it breaks into an orchestral piece that repeats three chords for about two minutes. Nothing really can explain this tacked on grandeur, expect maybe that they wanted people to think the song was more epic than it really was. Which really is a rather uncomely personality disorder.
Unfortunately, when the new Trail of Dead aren’t being all awkward, they’re often being extremely boring. Keely’s voice – more prominent on this album than the others, when more stage-time was given to bandmate Jason Reece – has a shaky duality to it. When it’s good, it tugs your heartstrings pretty deftly, but when it’s bad, it sounds like, well, Blink 182. Take “Stand in Silence” for example. The lyrics, which are easy to understand without the aid of a booklet, are some of the best on the album, describing in what feels like honesty the kind of disconnect Keely faces. But the voice, the phrasing: it’s whiny teen angst, man, and it’s boring. The song kicks some ass with an aggressive riff, great production and a Chariot’s of Fire-esque interlude, and it sucks to see the whole thing topple down cause of the tasteless prominent vocals.
Experimentation was obviously on the Trail of Dead to-do list for this album, but none of it transcends the rote rock-by-the-numbers songs that it’s attached two. “Wasted State of Mind” begins with a loud shotgun blast of experimentation: African drum sounds and a jazzy bass piano. I can imagine the harder of the core fans – you know, the ones that like to head-butt for fun – having a legendary “wtf” moment here. And while it’s true that it’d be tough to slam into each other to this kind of beat, by the time the chorus hits, the charisma of the verse has been completely showered off and what’s left is a typical mainstream who-cares chorus: “Caught in a stasis/ I feel like I’ve wasted/ All my time/ With people and places/ We never related/ Or designed”. Not only boring to read, when sung in a ho-hum fashion and repeated umpteen times it’s at best uninteresting, and at worst, water-torture.
Experimentation in genre is a new game they’re trying out; “Witches Web” shows the band taking a very tentative step in the Americana direction (see: slide guitar). The chorus threatens very seriously to break into some Scorpions song – I’m not sure which one exactly – but that doesn’t ruin the fact that Keely’s voice sounds sweet and sad in this new sonic environment; a rather surprising success story. If nothing else, it sounds like it could reside innocuously on some American compilation disc. “Sunken Dreams” – another genre experiment – does not so well to be inconspicuously decent. I don’t have much to say about it other than: man, I thought with Billy Corgan’s solo disc I couldn’t hate new wave any more than when Billy Corgan was singing it.
I think everyone, from moshers to bloggers, can share the monumental “wtf” moment of “Eight Day Hell”. Imagine the most annoying faux Brit pop song ever written being blasted (and I mean blasted) through your home stereo with no prior warning: this is exactly what happens when you get to track 8. I don’t know what they were thinking, except that maybe they were listening to a lot (and I mean a lot) of Beach Boys and doing a lot (and I mean just a shitload) of helium. Whatever the case the song is downright offensive and I’m still recovering from the nauseated stomach it gave me.
Title-track “So Divided” showcases the very best and worst of the band. It begins with a phenomenal Keely vocal melody, maybe his strongest point on the record. Next, the verse disappears into what appears to be a different song; the rhythm is superb, using the Source Codes tactic of contrast to push you forward with frenetic pounding accents and then lulling you back with its peremptory deliberateness. I eagerly awaited the return of the initial verse when it dawned on me it wasn’t coming back – and all of a sudden, I was trapped inside a terrible Trail of Dead moment with no way out. While more than a few breathtaking things happened in the course of the song, the deliberate chorus becomes the point of emphasis, repeated far too many times and bloating up what could have been a healthy happy song. The lyrics, generic and pretentious, only worsen the situation, showing that Keely’s voice, without earnestness, goes immediately sour.
In recent interviews, lead-man Conrad Keely is candid about his disgruntlement, citing tour-derived exhaustion and financial woes as two big issues. His disillusionment is not of the subtle variety….this excerpt is taken from his website (trailofdead.com):
Hello to all of you fellow pirates, who have downloaded and stolen our latest album, who have listened with bleeding ears to what you should have never heard, who have taken what is rightfully ours, seized our precious things with rapacious, grubby hands, despoiled the sanctity of our hallowed artifacts and raped the sacred effigy of our trust.
In one way, it’s not hard to feel sympathy for them: they’re in a real tough situation which is trying to make money as a small rock band on a major label. But ultimately, bands put out their product and then it’s all about letting the chips fall where they may. Some say Pitchfork cursed them by slapping a perfect 10.0 on Source Tags and Codes – I say Pitchfork gave them an opportunity hundreds of thousands of bands would die for. People also say music critics, and especially the snobby music critics, love to build something up to tumble it down – with Trail of Dead, it’s all too obvious who did the tumbling down. Whether it was their burning desire to change the face of mainstream radio or even if it just their honest hopes to secure themselves financially, the band lost that secret ingredient that once gave them relevance. The ranting that Keely does on their website describes a bitter person displacing the anger onto the fans who, as a matter of fact, are the reason Keely gets to play music for a living. It’s distasteful and immature, a coping mechanism to deal with all the stuff that’s really going wrong. It’s safe to say that the Trail of Dead have been most successful when they were earnest and ambiguous (Source Tags and Codes) and least successful when they were insincere and contrived (World’s Apart). I’d call So Divided at about 30-70 in this respect, and if you feel like downloading it, I wouldn’t try to stop you.
– Scott Roots