Selling out is my fairytale ending. Young, unfocused, yet talented band hones its skills on the indie circuit, releasing a few promising albums before finally signing with a major label. With the much-needed influx of cash, said band invests in a real studio and gets the professional sound that might have been wasted on them several years before. But I understand that not everyone shares my opinion on this subject. Those of the indie persuasion are quick to point out the negatives of the major label arrangement — the “loss of artistic control”, the “overproduced sound”, etc. They accuse the band of losing the plot and sight of their fans. Well, I say it’s a pile of horseshit, perpetuated by all the reject bands who are on indies by necessity rather than by choice. Sure, every now and then there is a horror story in major label land — The Dismemberment Plan’s ill-fated sojourn at Interscope Records immediately comes to mind — but these are the exceptions, not the rule. In fact, I’d venture to say that almost all of the best and most innovative albums in recent years have been released by major labels: Radiohead’s OK Computer, Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, and Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space chief among them. So much for that myth about quality being exclusive to boutique labels.
Which brings us to . . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, a band that, after two albums, one self-released and the other on reputable indie, Merge, finally made the leap to the big leagues last year, signing with the aforementioned hellion, Interscope Records. They also happen to be the group that gave the worst performance I have ever witnessed. Two years ago, on tour with Superchunk and a few other Merge artists, they played the Metro and basically just fell on their instruments for half an hour. Drunk didn’t even begin to excuse the depths of their wretchedness. I was convinced they were a joke band of some sort with their identically dyed black hair — like Ween but without any talent or amusing lyrics. Needless to say, I didn’t feel compelled to check out their recorded material.
If there was something that suggested Trail of Dead had something like Source Tags & Codes in them, I certainly didn’t hear it on that particular night. Hell, the band I watched wasn’t even able to get through a song without something going horribly awry. But obviously, some intelligent fellow over at Interscope was able to spot the potential that I missed. . . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead finally do live up to their name on this record — they claw, maim, and disembowel musical styles only to reassemble the spare parts in completely unrecognizable forms. There are more than a few nods to Sonic Youth — the loud yet tuneful version, circa Sister. But in addition we get random two-minute punk outbursts, frenzied drum rolls, and strange instrumental interludes. But for all its gonzo, crackpot gestures, Source Tags & Codes is a remarkably coherent work. It stands as the most melodically-inclined album in their catalogue and boasts their strongest songwriting to date. But perhaps scariest of all, Source Tags & Codes hints at even greater artistic strides to come. Any group that can combine so many disparate fragments and not have it sound like a muddy, hasty mess immediately commands my respect. Even the moments that seem totally haphazard make sense in the larger context — as if each musical section is vital to the structural integrity of the album as a whole.
While there are many highlights throughout Source Tags & Codes, some songs in particular bear the unmistakable mark of genius. The second track, “Another Morning Stoner” revels in cymbal crashes and thick, enveloping basslines, the muffled vocals teetering just on the brink of insanity. “How Near, How Far” perfectly showcases the band’s newfound sophistication — the cataclysmic guitar fury for which they’re known comes in short bursts, punctuating lengthy dramatic build-ups. And “Relative Ways”, which was the featured track on the taster EP released toward the end of last year, is still every bit as emphatic as it was then, although interestingly enough, when contrasted with seasoned material on the rest of Source Tags & Codes, it does seem a tad one-dimensional. Fortunately, the Trail of Dead save their best for last. The album’s title track and closer is a brilliant extrapolation of their strengths: precise drumming and icy vocals lead, ever so slowly, to a cascading guitar climax before spiraling back to the start. At over six minutes, it’s the longest song on the album, but it proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Trail of Dead are more than the sum of four destructive drunks.
Lyrically, it’s hard to figure out where the Trail of Dead are coming from. At times, they sound like they’re referring to a parallel universe. About all I can discern is that time is a central theme — specifically, its relationship to pain, imagination and reality — and that their collective outlook is pretty bleak. They talk of things they left behind and ruined landscapes they once called home. In other words, not something that you’d want to listen to if you forgot to refill your Prozac prescription. But to their credit, the morose vision is rendered tastefully and with a rare intelligence. It may not be something that you can comprehend or relate to, but, at the very least, you can tell some thought went into the writing, which is more than can be said for most of the self-absorbed psychobabble that passes for rock lyrics these days.
I’m still sort of confused as to why anyone at Interscope would bother with the Trail of Dead. Source Tags & Codes has even less commercial potential than the Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency & I, which at least had bright pop choruses to recommend it. (Interscope bankrolled the album but decided it wasn’t worth their trouble to release it.) Source Tags & Codes is simply too extreme and, well, bonkers for radio consumption. I’m not even sure a radio format exists for music of this sort. (Although I have to admit that I’d be amused to hear something like “Relative Ways” sandwiched between “My Sacrifice” and the latest Staind single.) Where in the hell do the Trail of Dead fit into the Interscope corporate strategy? Well, no matter. I’m not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. If major labels keep funding albums like this, the term “sellout” will soon be obsolete.