Like At the Drive-In, . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead are a band of ass-whuppin’ Texans with a stupidly great name, turning indie rock on its ear by reaching back to the land that punk forgot. Just as ATDI copped the MC5’s ‘fros-of-fury, Trail of Dead take a page from Roxy Music and ’70s art rock, paying off their and-then-there’s-this-part indulgence with balls and style, right down to the matching haircuts. The big difference, though—and, in short, why Trail of Dead have signed to a major and lived to tell about it while At the Drive-In imploded under the weight of touring and herniated punk ideals—is that ToD live, however precariously, for playing out. At their best, they can melt Sonic Youth’s glacial beauty into a sweaty mess with combat worthy of Slipknot, building up mop-topped melodies only to beat the hell out of them and each other. At their worst, well, at least the Who thing’s entertaining—i.e., when they start breaking guitars and throwing around drum kits.
On record, they’ve been less convincing, if only because longtime producer Michael McCarthy had to figure out how to translate their serpentine live fury into red-lining guitar tones and heave-ho tempo changes without making them sound like they’re just killing time between rave-ups, which at times they have. ToD’s eponymous 1998 debut clanged, soared, and roared like a bunch of overeducated indie kids who’d spent too much time in going-nowhere Austin bands suddenly realizing they have nothing to lose. Their follow-up, 1999’s Madonna, separated the wheat from the thrash a little better, balancing ToD’s grasp of the Who’s “I Can See for Miles” tension with beehive guitars to sound like the Damned diving after the worm at the bottom of a tequila bottle.
On Source Tags and Codes, ToD aren’t diving after anything. Instead, they look up and out, presumably from an observation deck set atop their bigger Interscope recording budget. Songs still wind and careen, but now final choruses all tingly with melody get a boost heavenward from Yes-worthy string arrangements. Even when songs don’t get the royal treatment, they still carry on like they do.
But if Source revels-slash-relies on happy endings the way, say, the Beta Band’s three-chord monte leans on tangential jamming, the rotating frontmen and chimerical playing is fast and furious enough that none of it sounds the same—or too familiar. With songs about Baudelaire and a CD booklet of band members’ art, Source Tags and Codes is so capital-R Romantic it’d swill absinthe with a laudanum chaser if it could. But at least it captures the fuzzy-math sound from too many gray-area indie bands—and it rocks hard where geezers like Mercury Rev just drift away. Sure, verses tend to be as overloaded as Dio’s or Eminem’s. And Conrad Keely isn’t beyond rosy poesy—In “How Near How Far,” he sings, “Looking back in time/Through verses set in nursery rhyme/At oil-painted eyes/Of muses left behind/I swear I know not why/Those eyes have always left me dry.” But hey, if ain’t baroque, don’t fix it. Just beat the shit out of it live.
. . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead play the Bowery Ballroom March 11 and 12.