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Sunday, September 27, 2009

And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead: So Divided


1) Intro: A Song Of Fire And Wine; 2) Stand In Silence; 3) Wasted State Of Mind; 4) Naked Sun; 5) Gold Heart Mountain Top Queen Directory; 6) So Divided; 7) Life; 8) Eight Day Hell; 9) Witches Web; 10) Segue: In The Realms Of The Unreal; 11) Sunken Dreams.

One can sense confusion as the main point of this album: perhaps befuddled by the critical and commercial backlash against Worlds Apart — one that I, for one, could not have predicted ei­ther, were I the one in charge of the band's creativity, since Worlds Apart was a smooth and lo­gical expansion of the journey started with Source Tags — Keely and Reece are all but dancing without a floor, trying out all sorts of ideas and ending up with perhaps their most incoherent album ever, a mess of shards that just can't seem to stick together.

For this, they got slapped once again; few people loved the album as a whole — most firefighters from the music review industry slapped on their gear, dashed into the burning house, saved a few precious items and condemned the rest of the building. The band was accused of meandering, philandering, pandering, and rendering their former rock sound soft, lazy, and unbearable. Even the infamous Matt LeMay from Pitchfork joined in the fray.

I guess, however, that it all boils down to one's expectations. Discoherence and being "all over the place" are not welcome much in the XXIst century; had The White Album been recorded and released today, chances are the leading critics of our generation would have swept it away, complaining that "its complexity seems inorganic and clumsy, revealing the weakness of the source material rather than elevating and enhancing it... even when the dizzyingly disparate pieces of the album do fall into place, it seems like the work of some external hand; the band achieves crystalline structural vistas, but it's never quite clear how they got there, or why" (a direct quote from the Pitchfork review of So Divided — but isn't this a word-perfect description of The Beatles as well?).

And So Divided is this band's White Album (proportionately, of course): the product of a band that, subconsciously at least, understands that it has already reached its highest peak and can now allow itself whatever curious and puzzling moves it can think of at any given moment, even at the expense of "clumsily" sounding like a parody on someone else. Even without being fully and com­pletely versed in all the musical styles of the past fifty years, I can't help but spot influence after influence on the musical world of the album.

There is only one straightforward cover: Gui­ded By Voices' 'Gold Heart Mountain Top Queen Directory' (with a more lush and polished ar­rangement than the original, but also with a vocal delivery that is undistinguishable from R.E.M's Michael Stipe, for some reason), but nods to giants are all over the place: 'Eight Day Hell' bor­rows its piano-and-drums intro from 'Good Day Sunshine' and then sounds like a generic late Sixties psychedelic anthem à la early Bee Gees or Status Quo; 'Sunken Dreams' is a spot-on imi­tation of The Cure, from its title to its grim echoey production to Robert Smith-like vocals; 'Stand In Silence' is the kind of pop-punk that stems from The Jam and extends to... oh, whatever; 'Wit­ches Web' may be Pink Floyd-influenced (although I've also seen it compared to the Kinks' style on Muswell Hillbillies, if you can believe that); and at least one or two songs have massive codas that bring to mind Yes' 'Starship Trooper'. Bizarre as it seems, even the non-essential intro to the al­bum has made me think of Blur's 'Tender'!

So, if anything, the easiest accusation against the Austin guys here could be that they no longer sound like the Austin guys, but rather like a bunch of imitations of other guys. The title track is arguably the only song on here that still preserves traces of the old band; elsewhere, even the songs that rock no longer rock the way they used to rock — 'Naked Sun', for instance, has blues-rock overtones and even refuses to utilize the chainsaw-and-jangle wall of sound for most of its duration. Worst offense of all: on half of the tracks at least, the vocalists are actually trying to sing rather than shout. Sometimes, they even succeed. Sometimes, when they can't and don't, they bring in female voices: the avantgarde artist Amanda Palmer on 'Witches Web' and Lily Courtney on a few other tracks. Just how "And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead"-like is this?

But I like most of these songs; I like the vocal melodies, I like the refined arrangements, and I like how they did manage to re-capture the artistic essence of their influences (I defy you to play the beginning of 'Sunken Dreams' to your unsuspecting neighbour and not have him identify it as The Cure). Their lyrics are getting better and better with each new album as well — although it's hard not to make a jab at lines like 'I had a band, had a song, had a vision, where's my vision gone?', they go along very well with the energetic riffage of 'Stand In Silence'. In fact, quite a few of the texts are all about confusion, loss of direction, disillusionment, and other nice elements that goad sharp-tongued critics into action, but at least they're being honest, and let's face it: if a band that doesn't know what it is that it is doing does it so well, doesn't this mean that the band is essen­tially good? For all it's worth, it may be So Divided that ultimately convinces me the Austin lads have talent, certainly not Madonna — and, perhaps, it ends up convincing me even more master­fully than Source Tags, although it may not be the better album of the two.

So thumbs up for a record that I will, by all means, be wanting to eventually revisit — not be­cause it simply "sounds like all these other great bands", but because I have yet to figure out all the subtleties of how these other great bands merge with Reece and Kelly's own musical and spiritual past and present.

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