The sticky-fingered English poet T.S. Eliot—actually he was American, but for God’s sake, don’t tell him—once made an observation to the effect that good poets borrow but great poets steal. It’s a pity that Eliot never got to hear Austin, Texas, noise-rock quartet …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. He might have been forced to revise his good opinion of larceny.
Although the band has won kudos (chiefly from those fickle folks at the NME) for its guitar-splintering, amp-impaling live act, it has yet to outgrow the copycat rep that has led certain wags (OK, me) to rechristen it …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Sonic Youth Albums. Sure, Trail of Dead’s sophomore effort, 1999’s Madonna, had its moments—”Mark David Chapman” was as catchy a slice of pop as anything else released that year—but it rarely transcended its slavish devotion to Thurston, Kim, & Co.
But you’ve got to let go your grip on the coattails sooner or later, and on its new album, Source Tags & Codes, Trail of Dead moves beyond aping Sonic Youth to aping other bands as well. There’s no denying that Source Tags & Codes is one powerful post-punk poke in the ear; drummer-guitarist-vocalists Jason Reece and Conrad Keely, guitarist Kevin Allen, and bassist Neil Busch can lay down the sound like nobody’s business, and they’ve got a knack for writing hooks, too. Unfortunately, when these guys kick ass, they use somebody else’s foot: Mix two parts Daydream Nation (“It Was There That I Saw You,” “How Near, How Far”), one part Rites of Spring (“Homage”), and a pinch of the Murder City Devils (“Days of Being Wild”), and voila!
That said, if you’re some up-and-coming teenage punk who missed out on the glory days of Sonic Youth but still likes the idea of kids too impatient to tune their guitars giving a collective middle finger to the establishment whilst signed to a major label, then you could do a whole lot worse than Trail of Dead. But if you’ve been ’round the block, as I have, then you’ll probably find yourself noticing that Trail of Dead’s anger sounds as reheated as its riffs and thinking that the least you could expect from a bunch of guys who travel the world smashing guitars for a living is a sense of humor. But do we get a sense of humor? No, we get a song called “Baudelaire.” Talk about hoisting the Un-Jolly Roger of artistic pretension. Someday, somebody will write a funny song about France’s famous florist of evil—or poor Arthur “Save Me From Patti Smith” Rimbaud, for that matter—but in the meantime, we’re stuck with these guys. A season in hell, indeed.
Then again, if Creed’s unbridled success is any indication, kids today don’t have a sense of humor, which is another reason for the youngsters to check out Trail of Dead. God love ’em, the graying folks in Sonic Youth were once worth listening to because they were too hip to take that whole teenage-riot thing very seriously. But the mop-topped lads in Trail of Dead take the idea of teenage riot very seriously indeed—which just goes to show that there’s truth in that old saw about Youth being wasted on the young. You can hear it in “Days of Being Wild,” which starts out like gangbusters and then goes from loud to soft and back again—a trick the boys obviously picked up on Day One at the Ian MacKaye Memorial Emo Academy. “Homage” employs a similar strategy, opening with a furious assault before stopping dead, then starting up again, and then—you get the idea. The same goes for the drenched-in-feedback squall of the opening track, “It Was There That I Saw You,” which, on the positive side, also features some big vocals from Reece that are virtually guaranteed to have you singing along, whether you want to or not.
“Heart in the Hand of the Matter,” on the other, uh, hand, makes a case for the virtues of just throwing in the towel and getting down with your bad cover-band self. Reece’s smooth-as-butter vocals, which he seems to have tricked out in goth garb just for the occasion, blend perfectly with the Moore-Ranaldo guitars into a pureed sound so delicious that you’ll be willing to forgive Trail of Dead for getting the recipe from the back of a box of Alterna-Rock Tasty Bites. The same goes for “Baudelaire,” World Lit 101 title notwithstanding, which reminds me of the Strokes, which I guess makes Trail of Dead an imitation of an imitation. The track, though, is compelling proof that originality is overrated, with Reece’s vocals turning sexy rather than screechy, Keely laying down a hellish beat, and the rest of the boys kicking out a cool little Steve Mackay-era Stooges free-jazz freakout at the end.
But it’s the album’s final track, “Source Tags & Codes,” that gives me the most hope that this band might be more than the sum of its borrowed parts. Not that it’s original or anything. Rather, it shows Trail of Dead copping sounds from a completely unexpected source: Pavement. “Source Tags & Codes” is, well, friendly, featuring as it does a shaggy dog of a guitar riff, some Teenage Fanclub-like vocals, and a honky-tonk piano so neighborly that it practically says howdy. Combine “Source Tags & Codes” with the penultimate “Relative Ways,” which reeks of—you guessed it—Daydream Nation but is also so upbeat and pop-catchy that it begs for heavy AOR rotation, and you almost get the sense that this is a band interested, if not in developing its own sound per se, then at least in writing some top-notch rip-offs.
This album-closing knockout, knit together by the pretty little piano number “Relative Ways Segue,” makes it sound as if Reece & Co. suddenly decided that they no longer needed to prove anything—that they’d finally decided to stop being badasses for a second and just let it all hang out. On “Relative Ways,” especially, Reece seems to be giving us a wink that says he’s in on the big rock ‘n’ roll joke at last, with his “electric guitar hanging to [his] knees”: “It’s alright, it’s OK,” he sings breezily, “it’s coming together in relative ways.” And if Trail of Dead has the sense to continue in this vein, he just might be right. CP
…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead performs at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 7, at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 667-7960.