Music News

Great Expectations

. . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead may be a victim of its own success.

The Austin-based post-rock group's ragged and glorious indie-punk albums, like 1999's Madonna, and 2002's brilliant Source Tags & Codes, didn't make it onto the Billboard charts, but the latter album's reputation as a masterwork helped it sell more than 200,000 copies during the next several years, and HBO adopted the single "Relative Ways" as a theme for its summer 2002 TV campaign. But the band's new cred brought higher expectations.

Trail of Dead's 2005 album, Worlds Apart, was supposed to break them through to a wider audience. But Trail of Dead removed the sludgy guitar noise that made Source Tags & Codes such a forcefully intense experience. Focusing their sound on orchestral pomp and unusual song structures made Worlds Apart an album that replicated '70s progressive rock and its logy, complicated narratives. "I guess we became better musicians, and so we were very ambitious," says band co-founder Jason Reece. He adds that he and bandmate Conrad Keely were always interested in other musical forms like classical, blues and country. By Worlds Apart, they were finally accomplished enough to explore those interests in their work.

Worlds Apart drew some positive reviews, particularly a notice from Rolling Stone that called it "a heroic monster of an album." Anticipation helped send it into the Billboard Top 100 albums upon release, becoming Trail of Dead's first effort to achieve that position. But fans eventually concluded that Worlds Apart wasn't as good as Source Tags & Codes, and it soon became a major sales disappointment.

"I know people were very surprised by Worlds Apart. They thought it was a complete change in the sound," Reece says. "But if people knew us, followed our history, and knew us as a band and what we'd been into, they could see that this progression seems very natural. If you were a true fan, you would expect this music out of us."

Reece also claims Trail of Dead sold more copies of Worlds Apart in Europe. "We were suddenly playing places where we were never popular to begin with, like going to Norway, Sweden and Germany," he says. He notes that the band toured these countries in the past, and now draw larger crowds to their shows than before. "In America, it polarized people. I don't know if people read Pitchfork, or maybe kids are more fickle in America. Or maybe they're just not ready to listen to an album that has a lot of depth and substance," he says. (After giving Source Tags & Codes a perfect 10 score, music Web site Pitchfork Media memorably trashed Worlds Apart, giving it a 4 out of 10.)

Regardless of Worlds Apart's success in Europe, its critical and commercial failure in the States almost proved devastating for the Trail of Dead. In an interview with Billboard magazine, Keely said, "After its reception, I was pretty much ready to retire from music and find another career, convinced that I wanted nothing more to do with making music for anyone."

Reece says, "You have this certain self-confidence. You think you're doing your life's work. And when no one gets it in America, it's kind of funny. You're, like, slapped in the face. And I guess you start over again and go back to doing what you're here to do. We're here to make music, make records, and try again."

Early reviews indicate that audiences may not give So Divided a fair shake, either. Released on November 14, the disc is drawing mixed praise from magazines like Rolling Stone, which notes that the sound is "all over the place." While Trail of Dead is careful to re-inject some of the punk-rock energy that marked their early success, they stick by the unfettered orchestral pomp of Worlds Apart.

"We were experimenting with different genres and seeing what we could do to alter them," Reece says. "[For example], 'Naked Sun' has more of a classic rock beginning, kind of a basic blues, but then it opens up into this epic . . . I don't know. I guess the thing we were inspired by is Yes' 'Starship Trooper.'"

For the most part, So Divided is a more harmonious balance of straight-up rock and Keely and Reece's expansive imaginations. As if to shake out the cobwebs, Trail of Dead opens with a rocker, "Stand in Silence." Keely seemingly addresses the criticism surrounding Worlds Apart: "I asked a question but the world returned with silence/All that I wanted to know was where'd everyone else go?"

The sounds on So Divided range from the rockabilly blues of "Naked Sun" to the enigmatic, Cure-like goth-rock of "Sunken Dreams." But Keely's lyrics are uniformly tense, referring to a brief tour through the U.K. as "Eight Days in Hell," and a former friend as "Witch's Web." So Divided's uneven emotional terrain — the joy of truly improving as a musician coupled with uncertainty over the fate of one's career — makes for an occasionally difficult but ultimately rewarding listen.

Like everything related to Trail of Dead, making So Divided was a sometimes-wrenching process spread over nine months. "The writing of it was really quick and fast. We did it in a few weeks. But the recording of So Divided took more time. You're still trying to get all these ideas out," Reece says. "Making records for us is always difficult because we're perfectionists. We're very critical of our own selves."

So maybe So Divided is not as good as Source Tags & Codes. But Trail of Dead fans will do themselves a disservice if they stifle and snuff out the band for failing to yield another golden egg instead of evolving and growing on its own time. "Every record we've ever made has been a failure in one respect or another," Keely writes in a letter enclosed with publicity materials for So Divided. "They have all been, in every sense of the word, experiments, and like all experiments they have their share of successes, and their share of disasters."

"We're trying to do things that will spark our interest and keeps the fuel in the fire going," Reece says. "If we did the same thing over and over again, we would grow apathetic and complacent over no progression."

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Mosi Reeves