...nd You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead
Now that we are on the home stretch of the 2000s, a decade we have yet to collective give a succinct name to, I have been trying to forecast how we will fair as a decade. I mean at the time, we in the 80s knew our decade was a failure among its neighbors. We hated the 70s with an unbridled passion, but we knew they would fair better than the 80s. And look at it now. The evaporative smokescreen masking a climate of corruption and war has turned into the kitsch we mocked the 70s for being. Our pisspoor decade promised to start with the erect destructive cock of mass computer failure, but rather apologized uncomfortably that "this never happens to me" while we, annoyed, went back to reading our magazine. Hell, outside of Johnny Cash, no one really important seems to have died here. We have been a span of eventless events, calendar pages stacked up uncircled.
And as usual, the music that crops up in that era represents the times. It's the stink on the shit. There have been some great albums here and there, I know there were, but I have to do a series of elaborate stretches to put together a list of 20, where on a good night, I might be able to toss a list of 20 for each year of the airplane-food-hated eighties. It seems the great albums so far this decade (and this is by no means definitive, but just a stab) - Devendra Banhart's Rejoice in the Hands, the National's Alligator, The Black Keys recorded catalog, My Morning Jacket's At Dawn, Wilco's simultaneous rise and fall - all had a touch of reconstitution to them. Hate Culture Club if you must, but they kind of came out of nowhere. And maybe that is a sign of our times; our countries are led by less than heroic figures, our celebrities are loved more for being hateable than any modicum of merit. Maybe we are babies in a new century, and we have yet to rebel against out parents, and our cleverness lies in copying them that brought us into the world.
So. If we are to play the x-album of the 00's, I would say our Rod Stewart is Ryan Adams, our Sgt Peppers is Yoshimi vs the Pink Robots and the big one, our Dark Side of the Moon might just be So Divided by the Austin database hazard ...nd You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead. Dark Side is a difficult one to live up to because it is equally loved and hated by often the same demographic. Pink Floyd was reaching their final solution at that point, but the band pulled it off somehow, making an undeniable classic, albeit a bloated, divergent overwrought one. Gloriously so.
Trail of Dead tripped up their nearly iron-clad credibility with every hipster in earshot with last year's Tommy- scale World's Apart. I just witnessed up to 20 posts on a message board recently as to the best Trail of Dead record, and not a one even mentioned the record, not even in derision, scared that its hydra heads would emerge once again. I contend it's not all that bad, even kinda powerful. So Divided succeeds in World's Apart's wake, rallying the million directions and focuses their energies. I was going to make some other classic album analogies but each one had the chronology wrong upon research, so I'll let that thread hang bare.
This masterwork opens with a long silence slowly unfolding into crowd noise and pomp and circumstance, leading directly into what should be a hit single "Stand in Silence."It has an insistent bass line that makes me lurch in air-bass chug in my chair and a ringing verse that should blow the eyeliner off many a dad-hater marching band heartthrob combo. It dissolves into the coronation march from the intro and is damn uplifting before it launches back into the original theme. If the focus was more on the theatrics of the vocals, I'd be more likely to compare this to Queen in its finest form, but they don't so I won't either. "Wasted State of Mind" bursts forth in an insistent piano rumble that at the onset seems like a bad idea and quickly becomes the brilliant, creating backbone for a soaring simple melodic repeat of the title. It is built to be chanted in unison with lighters aloft and to soundtrack the passing of virginities.
Now this is all well and good, but shit, lots of bands can do elegant. Radiohead, this decade's Son Volt, came up with three good songs in a similar vein and a catalog off of carbon copies. Trail of Dead wins the prize for following those anthems with "Naked Sun" a funky weedy goddamn R&B single, replete with Big fat horns, swagger, dirty guitar licks as infectious as the needles strewn all over Keith Richard's guitar case in the early 70's. It too has a majestic passage, but it is build up on the strut, a colossus born of the surf. "Naked Sun" might be the greatest classic rock song of this decade, the forthcoming Guns-n-roses album non-withstanding. Plus that album will not see the light of day until actual Chinese democracy takes hold.
The real highlight though, rather surprisingly, is a faithful cover of Guided By Voices' "The Gold Heart Mountaintop Queen Directory" - believe it's the only song with lyrics that has made me shed a tear at a sensitive moment without making a lick of sense. Trail of Dead add just a thin layer of polish and 22 seconds onto the 1994 1:45 original. When I first listened to the album, I didn't even glace at the song titles but when the fist bar of the opening guitar figure hit, I started levitating like I did when I heard Robert Pollard's version in that shithole apartment I had back then. I've had this whole record stuck on repeat all week, and then this song gets repeated at least 4-5 times when it comes up, so I've heard their version approximately one zillion times now and it still sounds fresh and reverent. Magic little song, that is.
If CD's had a side two, the title track is great one to star it with. Epic power ballad, complete with driving piano beat and a gallop segment that Styx must've traveled through time to witness (ever look at the silver inner sleeve of Cornerstone? Clearly it is time machine blueprints) so they could inversely pretend to have come up with it first. "Life" opens and runs with a loping, herky-jerk piano while the vocals ride up and down like a tilt-o-whirl, and a car suddenly comes unbolted and you are set to glide through the air when the chorus hits. I think most bands could learn a thing or two from My Morning Jacket, and My Morning Jacket could learn a thing or two from this song.
Another surprise: "Eight Day Hell" is a happy, jumpy sea chantey that out jaunties even the Decemberists. Add Colin Meloy and maybe even Sufjan Stevens to the role when this lesson comes around.
I'm out of critical steam by the time "Witches Web" comes around. Its sweeping culcus clouds of slide guitar and American-in-nuclear Winter swoon reminds me of something very particular but I can't place it., so whatever it was, this evidently better. An extended Clive Braker segue way brings us to "Sunken Dreams" which offers the greatest surprise on the record. Remember that episode of South Park when one of the kids enlists Robert Smith of The Cure to save the town or something, and after the Moppet king defeats Mecha-Streisand, Kyle shouts "Disintegration is the best album ever"." And you were struck for just a moment, stunned in agreement? Remember that? You will have the same revelation at the opening "Sunken Dreams" and just as that feeling fades, the song shifts into a spoken bit and then into a battle scene of cosmic proportions, a Ragnarok ending to an epic journey of an album.
When I review these things and pour out the words you are now burdened with, I listen to the album on heavy repeat, and a lot of times, I am struggling to capture what caught me about this record on its first listen; that worm of insight tends to wiggle off under scrutiny. This record, however, unfolds more and more before me, wanting me to say more and more. So much for the barren drive through the nameless decade we inhabit, for I think I found a milestone.
(Alex V. Cook's book of rocknroll observations, 'Darkness, Racket and Twang' is available now from the SideCartel)
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com