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…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead…

So Divided

(Interscope)

As a relatively new convert to this band (I’d never heard them before their 2005 album, Worlds Apart) I don’t have the same historical perspective of folks who’ve seen Trail of Dead change and grow over the past eight years. I gather some longtime fans are less than thrilled with their more recent grand, ambitious productions and their self-conscious eclecticism. The group has been accused of being pretentious, but I guess I have a very high threshold for that—must be all those years of listening to Pink Floyd and early King Crimson on headphones. Anyway, I like artists who dream big, don’t want to be pigeon-holed and aren’t afraid to take some chances. So bring it on!

Worlds Apart, though fascinating and compelling on many levels, was also a bit of a mess—too many ideas expressed too many different ways, when simpler arrangements might’ve worked better in a lot of cases. The same argument could be made about their latest opus, So Divided, too, but for some reason it feels to me like they’ve mostly gotten it right this time. It is still quite an amalgamation of styles and textures, and the occasional kitchen-sink arrangement (Strings! Horns! Timpani! Sound effects!) can be jarring, yet it doesn’t feel overly thought-out (and over-produced), and it all hangs together surprisingly well. Credit the generally strong songwriting of Conrad Keely et al, the air in Mike McCarthy and the band’s production, and the continually creative use of reverbs and other effects; this is one great-sounding album. The lyric themes are mainly dark, but there’s a brightness to many songs that stands in stark relief: “Eight Days in Hell,” for instance, starts with a musical cop from The Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine” and has a vocal passage reminiscent of The Turtles’ bubbly “Happy Together,” but seems to be about a disastrous musical tour of the UK. As whole, the album is filled with Brit-rock and prog-rock trappings and references—it’s hard to believe the group is actually based in Austin. When’s the last time a Texas band produced an epic?

This certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea—it does beg for serious concentration (on headphones preferably) to soak it all in. But these guys are clearly onto something cool—though what it is, I couldn’t begin to say.

Must Play: “Wasted State of Mind,” “Eight Days of Hell”

Producers: Mike McCarthy, ...Trail of Dead…; Engineers: Jim Volantine, Bill Munyon, Will Sandels (mixing); Studios: The Mob House and Big Orange Studios (both in Austin, Texas), Interscope (L.A.); Mastering: Stephen Marcussen.

—Blair Jackson