The past few years have seen a relative explosion in the number of indie-rock groups thriving within the mainstream, from The Strokes to the Flaming Lips, the White Stripes and the Killers. “Worlds Apart,” the new album by –And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead makes a decisive step in the same direction. Though the album isn’t as wildly inventive as “Source Tags and Codes,” the band’s 2002 masterpiece, it is a standout among today’s rock albums.
Not as innately radio-friendly as some of the definite-article-themed bands, Trail of Dead eschews the stripped-down garage rock that has experienced a recent resurgence in popularity. The band’s fans will instantly know that it is a step away, and step backwards, from the fuller, almost orchestral sound of “Source Tags,” coupling less inventive and less provocative songwriting with more production.
In stark contrast from their previous work, most of the album’s songs are written by only one of the band’s two frontmen, Conrad Keely. In the past, he and Jason Reece split the songwriting duties, with an occasional contribution from bassist Neil Busch. Though Trail of Dead is too abrasive to be called pop, the word comes close to describing Keely’s songs, though they are also wonderfully complex at the same time. But, in many ways, “Worlds Apart” lacks the punishing rawness of Reece’s songwriting.
The album opens with “Overture,” a minute-long crescendo of piano, drums, rhythmic chanting and strings. Climaxing with a scream, it leads directly into “Will You Smile Again.” At the beginning of the track, Keely entices the listener to “Close the door and drift away / Into a sea of uncertainty,” not a bad description of an ideal way to listen to the atmospheric album. Over seven minutes, the song is repeatedly built up and broken down again, a recurring pattern in the band’s music. Unfortunately, the trick grows old quickly, and some songs — like “Smile Again” — fall into the trap of repetitiveness.
“Worlds Apart” takes an ironic turn in its title track, which wouldn’t sound out of place playing back-to-back with Franz Ferdinand. In a move reminiscent of the hypocritical and naive Good Charlotte, Keely rants: “Look at those [expletives] on MTV with cars and cribs and rings — Is that what being a celebrity means?” Lyrics like that are excusable for angsty pubescent mall punks raging against their parents, but are hardly permissible for an act that wants to be taken seriously. The album has several such moments of inanity that take away from its overall artistry. Another example comes at the very end of the second track, when Keely curses off a group of laughing children.
After “Summer ’91,” a calmer tune featuring piano and timpani, Trail of Dead returns to the repetition in “Rest Will Follow,” a song characterized by two different drum patterns repeated ad nauseam. The Reece-sung “Caterwaul” is a song that truly lives up to its obscure name — a discordant, catlike cry — and stands out from the rest of the album as a result of its driving guitar riffs. Halfway through, it is hushed to a simple piano line accompanied by drums before finally returning to its original fury, a smart bridge that makes the rest of the song stronger in contrast. The song is a welcome change from Keely’s sound, which dominates the album.
Keely attempts the same deconstruction in the next track, but it falls flat towards the end, as his often screaming vocals end up whiny and shrill — whereas Reece’s are full and clear.
Keely briefly redeems himself on “Let It Dive,” a tune oddly reminiscent of Oasis’s better days, but as his songs return following a short orchestral interlude they all start to sound the same. Reece reappears on the final track, “City of Refuge,” and manages to breathe new life into the end of the album with electric piano and his almost whispering vocal — but it is too late to make up for Keely’s incessant running in circles.
It is the story of the album: “Worlds Apart” starts off promisingly, but an unwillingness to deviate from the tried-and-true formula of loud-soft-loud keeps the album from living up to expectations. But in contrast to the blissful freshness of “Source Tags and Codes,” the new record leaves you wanting more.