Worlds Apart

And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead:
Worlds Apart

[Interscope; 2005]
Rating: 4.0
Did Source Tags & Codes deserve a 10.0? That's not for me to say, but Matt LeMay rightfully counted it as one of indie rock's truly epic albums. By now, "epic" has grown stretch marks-- the term is thrown around whenever tracks buy into a concept, or break up into movements, or simply push past four minutes. Really, to be epic is to have a grand purpose, a destiny, and to fulfill it-- not out of desire, but out of necessity.

But necessity means struggle, and when I listen to "Another Morning Stoner" or "Baudelaire", I hear a band fighting to keep pace with its own colossal compositions. I hear a rhythm section buffeted by uncompromising tempos. I hear a gun held up to the head of Conrad Keely-- maybe the world's most terrible singer-- and a masked man telling him to sing pretty or die. It's not the band or the songs, but the curious life-or-death stakes by which the band played the songs that deserves the rating the album was awarded.

Understandably, Austin's Trail of Dead didn't have a fucking clue what to do for a follow-up. On 2003's The Secret of Elena's Tomb EP, they tried reprising ST&C ("All St. Day"), reverted to their early days as a Sonic Youth cover band ("Mach Schau"), and even turned in a poor man's "Iris" ("Counting Off the Days"). No band wants to hear it can't top itself-- an implication that shadowed every perfect rating ST&C received critically-- and Trail of Dead seemed anxious to abandon their defining opus, which was already beginning to dwarf the band itself in importance.

Worlds Apart is an aspiration, an apology, the sound of confusion. The Interscope tag continues to be Trail of Dead's biggest asset and affliction: The label allows them the freedom to distance themselves from their past achievements, and access to Jimmy Iovine's in-house PR machine, which can win the interest of major media conglomerates, commercial radio and MTV; but the band aims too high as a result, apparently convinced that they have the power to change pop culture from the inside, to engage the public with seemingly radio-safe rock stylings that actually conceal one deceitful, potentially winning twist. Unfortunately, for Worlds Apart, that twist is once-off gimmickry: hamfisted "subversive" lyrics, pointless pastiche, and outrageous self-parody.

Count first single "Worlds Apart" among the thousands of boring three-minute commercial rock songs that-- get this-- criticize commercial rock. The lyric "Look at these cunts on MTV with cars and cribs and shit/ Is that what being a celebrity means?" is this palm-muted, mall-punk schmaltz-waltz's only surprise, passable on first listen and grating thereafter. It doesn't get laughable until the cursing kicks in-- essential to the band's "points"-- and keeps the song off radio.

In several website manifestos (since removed), Keely complained that music lovers consume songs without actually listening to them. He claimed we reduce albums to genre, and artists to their influences, uninterested in finding a song's meaning and unwilling to appreciate their unique human nuances. One such manifesto came packaged with promo copies of Worlds Apart, in fact, as if Keely could convince us to ignore the fact that "The Summer of '91" sounds like the Counting Crows, "Let It Drive" sounds like the Gin Blossoms, "The Rest Will Follow" sounds like Bright Eyes, "All White" sounds like Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie, and the verse melody of "Caterwaul" is the band's most soluble MBV-meets-Sonic Youth rip yet. Much of Worlds Apart plays like a boring mid-90s alt-rock radio mixtape-- so why sit through this shit just to get the band's "jokes"?

Here's the worst joke: Trail of Dead spend so much time being "Worlds Apart" from themselves and the pop culture they engage to overthrow that they only manage one good song. The album's least self-conscious cut, "Will You Smile Again", charges out with a mammoth 5/4 riff, loud and snarling and far more theatrical than the cartoonish "Ode to Isis". Keely sings poorly on "Will You Smile Again" as he does throughout Worlds Apart, but here he turns his biggest challenge into a compelling performance, letting the notes explode into untoned gutturals when they outstretch his range. The seven-minute song's not life-or-death stakes-- it's something bigger, something more confident, but for now a fleeting fancy. Seconds into the title track that follows, Trail of Dead follow a sample of children yelling "YAY!" with Keely sniping, "HEY, FUCK YOU MAN"-- which, of course, makes the kids laugh. This easy switch-up-- kitschy but not considered, cunning but never heartfelt-- is the album's epitaph.

- Nick Sylvester, January 25, 2005