On their great 2002 album Source Tags & Codes, ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead married raw power, plainspoken beauty, and just enough sheen to keep their new major-label bosses happy.
Much has happened to the Austin noisemakers since then. They've made a few good records and more than a few marked by a lack of focus and direction, as if they were happy to be running in place rather than sprinting toward the future. You can argue it was the inevitable outcome for a band that's been doing its own thing for this long (Jason Reece and Conrad Keely, the two original members, formed the quartet back in 1994). Or maybe it's a by-product of signing with a big-league record company. Whatever the case, Trail of Dead are back on track now.
Reece (who drums, plays guitar, and sings) says the band's new album, Tao of the Dead, reminds him of the electric feelings that surrounded the 2002 sessions that yielded their best record. He says their seventh album is more like a jumping-off point than a midpoint in their career. "There's a definite revitalization to the whole thing," he says. "This one feels different. You know, like fuck, this is exciting."
The album certainly generates the same sort of sparks found on Source Tags & Codes, but in very different ways. In a way, Tao of the Dead is both Trail of Dead's most ambitious and experimental album and their most approachable and accessible one. Split into two parts, the record includes plenty of cerebral moments. For one thing, each section is recorded entirely in a separate key. And the second half is made up of a 16-minute track with several distinct movements. It's an album that requires as much from longtime fans as it offers them.
But at the same time, there's a sense of immediacy to the record — especially on the first half, which grips tighter than any other Trail of Dead album. Where Source Tags & Codes, for all its brilliance, worked hard to bridge the gap between the group's ambitions and the instant gratification of a well-crafted pop song, Tao comes by the same things more effortlessly, without coming off like it's a primary goal.
Perhaps the ebb and swell of landing a major record deal and then losing it has something to do with the band's ability to move between disparate concepts without losing much in the transition. It certainly doesn't hurt that, even during their time with Interscope, Trail of Dead pretty much do whatever they want. "It's definitely a thing where you have to come back to the music and realize that the reason we even started the band in the first place is the energy of those first days of playing shows or the first time we recorded a song," says Reece. "It's always good to kind of look back and retain those things."
None of this, of course, has made the band any richer — even when they were handed "shit-tons of money" by Interscope. Plus, Reece admits that they lost some purpose back then (Trail of Dead made three albums for the company, which dropped them after 2006's underwhelming So Divided). As genuine indie rockers once again, they're being somewhat forced to stand back and assess what works. Bottom line: It's the music.
"I'm glad we're not a tax write-off anymore," Reece says of their major-label period. "They never were really telling us what to do with our music, which is great, but getting with a label that loves your band and cares about your band is such a big difference."
And that's what the Tao of the Dead is all about.