Relax, it's Just Art
“Being on Interscope, we’re a moving target. We were almost asking for a lot of criticism. Which we’re up for, but I think that if people actually pay attention to the music and get over the fact that, yeah, we’re on the label that Limp Bizkit is on, then maybe they’ll soon see the light.”
—Jason Reece, . . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead
I still can’t for the life of me figure out why the hell everyone continues to beat up on And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. Of course, when it comes to popular culture, everyone—including myself, Trail of Dead’s Conrad Keely, indie rock fans who love their street cred, bloated industry types who love their money—is a critic. That’s the nature of the business, and the business of human nature. But to erect artistic binarisms at this late stage of capitalism, whether you’re Keely or some nobody journalist, is to waste everyone’s time and money. Calling Trail of Dead’s art-rock pretentious in an article that no one will probably read makes about as much sense as making an album that probably no one wants to hear.
And regardless of the criticisms that assert Trail of Dead seem to be too comfortable in their dark Gothic clothing, or destroy their instruments because they wish they were the Who—who, since 1967’s The Who Sell Out, have self-consciously skewered the fine line between art and commerce, even as their songs are used to sell allergy medicine—or incorporate esoteric artwork and religious marginalia while blasting guys like Tortoise—who take equally labyrinthine artistic structures and incorporate them into music that doesn’t, to paraphrase Spinal Tap, go to 11—the fact is that their work, like everyone else’s, is just one lonely gesture in a sea of artistic expression.
The party line goes like this. If Keely slams Genesis, prog rock, electronica, or Chicago post-rock—which he has—he’s a pompous prick. But if I or other so-called “critics”—like PopMatters’ own Robert Horning, who claimed that “Trail of Dead are one of those bands that has no one talented enough on any one instrument to take any leads . . . they mask their lack of talent with a cloak of faux-artiness and experimentalism”; ouch!—we’re journalists. Something fishy this way comes.
I’ve tried to play both sides (the artists and the industry) against the middle (the consumers) in my “criticism”, mostly because I usually only write about shit I like. And I like the shit outta The Secret of Elena’s Tomb. Because it rocks.
That might not be too constructive a criticism, but as Keely’s own indulgent criticism has shown, we’re all just moving words around here. As a product, my opinion is that The Secret of Elena’s Tomb is well worth the money. Apart from the songs, all of which are pretty good, there are videos for “All Saints Day”, “Relative Ways”, and “Another Morning Stoner”, none of which you will ever see on MTV (which should just drop the “M” from their name, since they don’t really play music anymore). From a collector’s standpoint, that alone is worth the $10 you’ll spend on the EP, as is the collection of cool-as-shit sketches. But, like Trail of Dead’s fan base argues when people get on that oft-abused pretension trip, it’s about the music. And there’s five songs here to choose from.
“Mach Schau” sounds like “Teenage Riot”-era Sonic Youth, moving from hushed riff to piledriver downstrum in the blink of an eye without a care (“We blew the past a kiss! / We turn it upside down!”, they sneer, obviously bidding farewell to something they’re glad to see go). As with their coolest work from Source Tags and Codes, the mix is so loud that the guitar tones fuzz out with nowhere to go; that itself is a nice deviation from nu-metal and emo’s conventional, clean-as-china distortion effects. “All Saints Day” continues the Daydream Nation comparisons, with an opening riff that sounds similar to one found on a SY song that I can’t remember the name of right now. But Keely and Reece have vastly more powerful lungs, something to remember when they scream, “Make some noise!”, in the song’s middle. “Crowning of a Heart” is about as poppy as Trail of Dead have ever been, four-part harmonies and Peter Buck-ish arpeggios and all, which is weird considering that it’s almost entirely instrumental. “Counting Off the Days” is a nice acoustic downstrummer, replete with emotional vocals and slightly corny lyrics (“Counting off the days / Could I be so afraid?”), but it’s the same spare craftsmanship that made Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm” a massive hit, so who are we to laugh at it (as Pitchforkmedia’s Ryan Schreiber did)? Even the programming bleeps that feel out of place on “Intelligence” make sense in Trail of Dead’s inclusive musical universe, especially since they’re accented by industrial guitar and vocal screeches, before the whole thing crashes into cacophony.
But all of this is just talk, like everything else that surrounds artistic production these days. Fans who dig Trail of Dead’s vibe will buy and promote their product, dig their art, research their allusions and ignore the haters. People on the fence will download it and do what they will, when it’s all said and done. The rest of us can all take a flying fuck, because no matter what happens, nothing will change the fact that these noisemakers are on Interscope, or that they like to read and incorporate esoterica, or that they like to tear the stage apart when they’re done with it. To expect anything more is to live in a dreamworld.
With late capitalism run rampant over global cultural production these days, the only relevant concern to raise is this: are you getting a deal for your money? And me, Schreiber, Horning, and Interscope can’t make that decision for you. It’s on you, suckers. Choose well!