Back when "grunge" was the hottest buzzword in rock -- and not yet a term that those desperate to seem hip know better than to mention -- major-label reps attending the annual South by Southwest music confab specialized in seducing credible underground acts who had no chance of selling discs in the millions. Then, a couple years later, they'd leave these same acts trashed and bleeding by the side of the road for committing a single, unforgivable sin: failing to sell discs in the millions.
The signing by Interscope of And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, slated to headline a show at the Gothic Theatre on Tuesday, April 16, with Bobby Conn and DeNunzio, is an eerily precise flashback to this era, with even the combo's history fitting the pattern. For one thing, allmusic.com says that Dead boys Jason Reece and Conrad Keely were based for a time in Olympia, Washington, home of the Melvins, for whom a young Kurt Cobain once served as a roadie -- and you can't get much grungier than that. For another, Reece and Keely subsequently relocated to (you guessed it) Austin, home of South by Southwest. And finally, the Trail, which also includes guitarist Kevin Allen and bassist Neil Busch, has been courted by big-imprint talent scouts for years, even though its music is about as likely to make the pop-singles charts as a 25-minute marimba solo.
The next stage in this progression could be ugly. But at least Source Tags & Codes, the act's Interscope bow, is a worthy piece of work and not the sort of compromise that many outfits in this position have made in the past. The sound may be a tad crisper than on the Trail's previous efforts, but producer/engineer Michael McCarthy -- who also worked on the four-piece's self-titled debut, released in 1998, and 1999's Madonna -- is smart enough not to prettify the performances. Track one, "It Was There (That I Saw You)," interweaves moments of relative tranquility with the bracing clangor of the band moving at full speed. The lyrics, meanwhile, are alternately romantic and fatalistic ("We were bold and life was great/But as time went on/I wondered what went wrong"), and as soon as they've run their course, the song collapses at the finish line amid bursts of distorted guitars that heave like pants of exhaustion.
What follows are ten more songs made up of equal parts racket, beauty and ambition. As a result of this last quality, the Trail occasionally flirts with pretentiousness. But if the players invite the suspicion of the masses by titling a song "Baudelaire," they're sharp enough to end it with lines that anyone can relate to: "Never see the light/When the boredom comes/When you're one of the boring ones." Moreover, they're well versed in the power of positive mayhem. The feedback-filled "Homage" and "Days of Being Wild," with its head-hammering rhythms, keep the passion flowing, and just when the title track seems on the verge of becoming wide-eyed and precious, everyone turns up both the volume and the emotion. Just in time, too.
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Of course, none of this will help the band make a dent in commercial radio without something unexpected and unlikely happening -- such as a sudden epidemic of good taste. Otherwise, the Trail of Dead will probably wind up being another record-industry casualty. But at least it'll be in good company.