March 15, 2002

Dead Men Rocking

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The Goddess of Hype leaves her annual mark on a band that is smart enough to gratify critics yet sufficiently listenable so as to earn a few minutes of impenetrable MTV airtime. After recovering from her brief love affairs with At the Drive-In and the Strokes, the Goddess has blessed in 2002 this curiously named indie-rock troupe, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, and their major-label debut Source Tags & Codes. Though the band does channel a melancholy incarnation of the overrated Strokes on the sparkling title track, their richly textured disc manages to transcend the buzz and emerge as what will surely be one of the year’s best.

These four Austin, Texas boys wrap the listener up in poignant vocal yapping and sinewy riffs that pound both your heart and brain like a sonic jackhammer, recalling Rid of Me-era P.J. Harvey and late-80s Sonic Youth with their layered orchestral fury. Despite the band’s infamously incendiary, over-the-top live sets, Trail of Dead radiates a tuneful warmth through their varied instrumentation and vulnerable lyrics. These are signs of a musical maturity that helps these guys resonate more loudly than any rock outfit content with turning the amps up to “11” and bitterly railing against the world.

So rare today is a rock album that maintains a high degree of intensity, inventiveness, and emotion for more than forty minutes. Source Tags & Codes links each visceral track with inscrutable feedback squawking that reinforces the incredible cohesion already present from start to finish. The thunderous guitar fuzz of “It Was There That I Saw You” could set the most hesitant mosh pit into a frenzy, despite uncharacteristic head-banging lyrics like “Let me hold you in my arms dear/ And let me melt in the heat of your gaze.” The jazzy, raucous rocker “Baudelaire” provides a frenetic counterbalance to the downbeat anthem “How Near How Far.” “Days of Being Wild,” a boisterous, oscillating marriage of emo and death metal, and a Pearl Jam-esque ballad called “Relative Ways” effectively fill out the haunting epic soundscape. The shivery piano piece “After the Laughter” segues directly into the sad-eyed title track, a hooky eulogy for “the ruined landscapes that I onced called home,” to cap off a brutally affecting album.

The ridiculous band name itself is taken from an ancient Mayan ceremony that involves the summoning of corn gods. This sort of silly pretension might overshadow a lesser band, but their musical chops actually add to the dark mythos. The artwork and liner notes for Source Tags & Codes contain vibrantly nightmarish images that are too beautfiul to be merely sensationalist. Such things may seem secondary when the disc itself rocks so hard, but they do add to a musical experience that is far from pre-packaged,

Trail of Dead so adeptly handle the ebb and flow of heaviness and thoughtfulness, that their sound may be too emotionally ambiguous for mass consumption. At the end of the album, the listener isn’t quite sure whether to feel pumped or pensive, but he sure as hell wants to hear it again. If Source Tags & Codes does catch on, it may breathe an intellectual vitality into the trail of death, destruction, and whining that is modern rock. Then again, they said the same thing about the Strokes…

Archived article by Dan Schiff