Thursday, March 03, 2005

I stole this review written by the exceedingly talented Nick Hennies from the Foxy Digitalis website to serve two purposes here: 1.) It fulfills a journalistic need for negative criticism (fair and balanced!), even though I didn't write it, and 2.) It perfectly, dare I say profoundly, sums up the inherent problem with admiring a band like And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead as anything more than a silly party band in this day and age. When was the last time a joke started taking itself too seriously in the indie rock world? Can ya say Urge Overkill? I saw these lads in 2001 or so, before a crowd of 50 tops, and personally I just didn't get it. No life altering conversion. No hooks. Nothing but a reminder of the former greatness of Unwound. A decent band, but a revelation? Not in my book. I remember one of them spitting beer on me and trying too hard to be dangerous looking (ironically, of course). Spinal Tap had more memorable stage antics.

And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead "Worlds Apart" (Interscope) 2 out of 10.

Sometime after the release of their major label debut, “Source Tags & Codes” Trail of Dead front man Conrad Keely posted an essay on the band’s website called “Abstract Art is Shit”. The essay claims that abstract art – specifically that of so-called “abstract expressionists” like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko – is “shit” because it cannot be appreciated by the whole of society. While I hate to believe the cliché that minor stardom turns people into arrogant assholes, with this kind of evidence fighting in favor of the cliché it’s hard not to believe that some stereotypes exist for a reason. How presumptuous to completely discount one of the most important artistic movements of the 20th century based on the fact that your 5-year old niece finds it “ugly” and you find it incomprehensible. I can’t say I was shocked to have read such a thing; Trail of Dead always succeeded not on their artistic merits and musical innovation but by being destructive, pandering, and fun. I once saw Jason Reece, before playing “Homage”, say “It’s an Unwound rip off. I’m not afraid to admit it.” It was an endearing moment where I was reminded that this was a band unafraid of being tagged “derivative” that concerned themselves only with putting on a great show. Sadly, in 2005 you will find no such candidness from these black-haired boys (or men, as I’m sure they’d prefer).

If I needed music to accompany Keely’s pseudo-intellectual rant against experimental art then I’d need to look no further than his band’s newest album, “Worlds Apart”. This is an album so in love with itself that it has an overture – 85 seconds of instrumental music that sounds remarkably like the opening of composer (and Nazi sympathizer) Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” or, if you like, every action-thriller film trailer ever made. It seems that Richard Strauss-like (another Nazi sympathizer!) overindulgence is par for the course as the entire album is littered with timpani, horns, string sections, a chorus, vocal effects, samples, sleigh bells, vibraphones, wind chimes, bird sounds, synthesizers, a faux-folk song waltz interlude, and huge stadium rock drum sounds catering to an anthem mentality where every song must be winning and triumphant. The result isn’t an album that sounds overextended or forced – Trail of Dead has more skill than that, they’re competent songwriters – but pushy and overconfident. Perhaps some people are swayed by this (just look who this country voted in as president) but I find it difficult to accept when the music is so predictable and off the shelf. The bulk of “Worlds Apart” is completely forgettable, a relentless string of attempts at anthemic songwriting full of cynicism, empty sentimentalities, and clichéd hooks. The repetitiveness and familiarity of it all becomes tiresome by the fourth track and unbearable by the twelfth. The album isn’t even ten minutes old before it becomes the Conrad Keely Show. Interscope Records seems to have footed the bill for Keely’s own personal soapbox with Jason Reece’s songwriting, previously providing much needed variety, inconspicuously taking a backseat.

The most painfully memorable moment of “Worlds Apart” is the album’s title track, a happy-go-lucky melody with lyrics that have Conrad Keely pointing his soft finger directly at the rest of the world. The lyrics for this song are so overwhelmingly ridiculous that they bear reprinting here. There are some errors in places where the singing is hard to understand and I have no interest in listening to the song repeatedly to iron them out. I think what I have here is plenty sufficient:

Random lost souls have asked me “What’s the future of rock n roll?”
I say, “I don’t know, does it matter?”
In that scene they sound all the same to me
Neither much worse or much better
We’re so fucked these days we don’t know who to hate or who to praise
Consider that, suffering in pain ("Hey, is that Kurt Cobain?)
It’s a privilege, the fact we forget about as we go (winding??) all over the place
How they laugh as we shove all the ashes Iraq has soured
Blood and death we will pay back the debt of the candy store of ours
Look as those cunts on MTV with cars and cribs and rings and shit
Is that what being celebrity means?
Let boys and girls and BBCs(???), corpses, rapes, and amputees
What do you think now of the American dream?
And the soccer moms and dads who raised their brats on those TV ads
I know that they sleep tonight
Their conscience is intact, they’ve convinced themselves of that
Giving money to Jesus Fuckin’ H. Christ
How they laugh as we shove all the ashes of the twin towers
Blood and death we will pay back the debt of the candy store of ours

Presumably only widespread commercial success or severe delusions of what constitutes reality could cause a person to be this condescending to the industry, fans, and social system that made his success possible. He discretely directs the song to “everyone” using self-inclusive words like “we” and “us” but I’m not buying it. If the rest of the world is laughing their days away at the candy store then Conrad Keely is the candy on the shelves, playing the escapist pop music he claims to have such disdain for. Never ones for subtlety, the 9/11-referencing chorus returns at the end of the album (just like “Jesus Christ Superstar”, another tasteless rock n roll epic), only this time it is half sung/spoken with a woman crying over top the lyrics. With this ominous and defeated warning (“This Jesus must die!”) about our societies impending doom the album launches into its final track, ending the album with a lame drum machine beat and a repetitive melody.

Simply stated, “Worlds Apart” is a sad reminder of what success and widespread admiration can do to a person. Until recently I had been a fan of Trail of Dead’s music since their first album was released to overwhelmingly negative reviews. I have watched this band develop from accused Sonic Youth plagiarists to one of the biggest indie rock bands in the world. Now we find ourselves miles from where we started. There are no more calls for pact suicide, no more perfect teenhood, no more spontaneous stage shows (there’s something decidedly less exciting about a guy smashing his guitar when his guitar tech is waiting to hand him a new one). Everything must be “meaningful”, the music must have great importance and weight. It is no longer enough to just have a good time, which is a tragedy because in their prime Trail of Dead had a better time than anyone. Trail of Dead in 2005 bears little resemblance to the band they once were, a ghost of better times. “Worlds Apart”, indeed.

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